Being released on the same day as the companion piece to the CD/DVD package Meet the Eels: Essential Eels, Vol. 1, Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities and Unreleased 1996-2006 is a true delight for those who have followed the unwieldy, elliptical career of Mark Oliver Everett (aka "E"), who has employed more musicians than probably even he can count under the Eels moniker. There is a DVD in this triple-disc set. It contains the band's 2006 performance at Lollapalooza. It's a nice addition, the show was fine, but it's almost an afterthought for anyone who digs into these cuts with anything approaching earnestness.
First off, there are 50 of them spread over two discs. From the beginning E expresses his own ambivalence with a "Live from Hell" version of "Novocaine for the Soul." How do we know? The opening annotation in the liner notes simply states: "When you have a hit song, you're expected to play it every single day of your life. Good luck not going crazy." The performance reflects that truth. But it is followed immediately by the delightfully poignant, I-love-you-I-hate-you ditty of truth called "Fucker"; according to his notes, it was his girlfriend's nickname for him. (There isn't anyone who hasn't been involved deeply with someone who doesn't get every word of this simple construction.) "Dog's Life" is full of not only wonder-words, but strings, loopy textures, and sparse guitars. Of course, the soundtrack tunes and rarities are awfully welcome -- especially now, before the Eels' single, EP, and movie tunes shelf gets any larger. But E's sense of pulling covers out of his hat walks the same knife-edged push and pull between hell and something less than hell -- purgatory maybe? It adds immeasurably to what's here. The sense of the abject in "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You," accompanied only by his piano, is the opposite of the Elvis version. Elvis begs as a youth begs, E sings into the void of an empty apartment knowing that this confession isn't ever going to be heard because he's already tried that. The reading of the Hollies' "Jennifer Eccles" has a beautiful Chamberlin played by E and a very skeletal Gretsch played by the same. Where the Hollies sang this song with its requisite teen confidence, E's comes from the hall of memory before it fades into the ether. The line "I hope that Jennifer Eccles/Is going to follow me there..." takes on a chilling significance. The version of "Dark End of the Street" (a Chips Moman/Dan Penn soul classic that is performed by everybody, but it still belongs to James Carr) has a mournful horn section -- and perhaps it's Lisa Germano on the backing vocal. Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend" is treated with a sublime post-grunge feedback anti-funkiness to begin, but E nails the tune in his way. And the version of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" simply has to be heard to be believed; if you haven't already heard it, E sounds like a man possessed with a band out to tear itself apart. And one controversy has finally been resolved: "Rotten World Blues" is only on the U.S. version of the Souljacker bonus EP, kinda making up for the fact that the remix of "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues" was only included in the U.K. version.
But there's more. There are alternate readings of album cuts which prove to be just that, alternates without any true revelations, though they are perfectly fitting in this context. The booklet is bursting at the seams with craziness, memorabilia, weird observations written on hotel room stationary, annotated stoicisms, photographs galore, and some hilarious asides. When taken together with its companion, Meet the Eels, the two form a better blueprint for how these kinds of collections should be done. Rather than try to paste it all togeter in a box set, giving people a load of stuff they already have, you can do a basic hits collection with a bonus DVD, providing it contains all the videos. Then, especially for the fanatics, plug in something to cover most if not all of the holes in the tracks, replace bootleg versions, and add an unreleased concert to the mix to make it irresistible. It's still marketing, but at least it's semi-honest. The Essential Eels collection contained those videos for the sake of a kind of complete-ism (and to get the hardcore faithful to buy both sets). It's understandable but utterly questionable. Trinkets would have been perfect had it contained those videos as well as the concert on a single DVD -- there was room. But as it is, it's not to be missed for having the marginal asides collected so handsomely and carefully.