Whether you sample the greatest-hits Meet the Eels or the outtake collection Useless Trinkets, the story of the band plays out the same: First, they were popular; then they got interesting. The L.A. collective, led by frontman E, initially achieved alternative-rock notoriety with 1996's "Novocaine for the Soul," a grimly catchy song about music's ability to fend off depression for a few minutes at a time. The band hasn't gotten close to achieving a "hit" since, but these two compilations argue that E has in subsequent years only refined and improved upon "Novocaine's" resilient sentiment.
Meet the Eels expertly condenses the group's six studio albums and one live offering into 24 primo cuts. Fans may bitch about a certain track here or there missing, but for the novice, this de facto "best of" nicely summarizes the stylistic digressions E has pursued in a decade of song, including misanthropic blues-rock, confessional balladry and ramshackle chamber pop. What emerges is one man's quest to juggle sincerity and wise-ass sarcasm without diminishing the power or necessity of either approach.
If Meet the Eels is for newbies, then Useless Trinkets is a gift for the converted. Although it may pile on a few too many reinterpretations of "Novocaine" and other better-known tunes, Trinkets testifies to the remarkable fluidity of E's best work — the repeated tracks remain fresh in each new aural setting. As for the live cuts, cover tunes and B-sides, they're of consistent high quality: So consider Trinkets a more than satisfactory proper album until E blesses us with his next official release.
Tim Grierson writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].