Classic Compilation: The Eels – Meet The Eels: Essential Eels, Vol. 1 (1996–2006)

To my ongoing shame, prior to hearing Meet the Eels, I had dismissed Eels as little more than a post-grunge novelty act after seeing them miming along with toy instruments to “Susan’s House” on Top of the Pops in the mid 90s. A few years later I picked up a copy of Beautiful Freak as I’d liked the few Eels tracks I had heard from that album over the years, but the album as a whole just didn’t lodge itself in my psyche as my favourite albums frequently do. Beautiful Freak turned out to be tenacious little album though, as over the years it managed to be recovered multiple times from the stack of CDs that I frequently take down to the local music exchange. Over the years Eels gradually dropped off my music radar for the most part, apart from the odd track that I heard used in films and so on.

So if I was so unsure about this band, why the hell did I pick up a compilation? Perhaps it was curiosity, perhaps it was boredom, or maybe it was something in the back of my mind that said ‘Now is the time for this band’. If it was the latter then I really should be listening to the back of my mind a lot more than I do.

Okay, so I was already familiar with the first four tracks of this CD, as they practically pick themselves from the band’s debut album, though personally I would have liked to have seen room made for “Spunky” and / or “Guest List”. “3 Speed” is the next stop and it’s a nice introduction to the notoriously somber Electro-Shock Blues, though E’s genius is truly not underlined until “Last Stop: This Town”, that album’s most commercial moment, and one of the great should-have-been-bigger singles of the late 90s. It was hearing this tune in the context of this compilation that my interest in The Eels began in ernest, and over the next nineteen tracks I discovered that my new favourite band had actually been around for much longer than I realised and boast a diversity that would make almost any other band from the last thirty years blush. Just from the two dozen tracks featured on Meet the Eels, their versatility is breathtaking, from the fuzz-rocking ”Souljacker Part 1”, to the commercial crowd pleasers like “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” and “Saturday Morning”, to the more heartbreakingly introspective emotional confessionals of “It’s A Motherfucker” (which narrowly edges ahead as the most heart-rending emotional gut-punch on the CD) and “I’m Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart” (which comes in at a photo-finish second place), and then back to crowd pleasing singalongs like “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” and “Losing Streak”. I genuinely struggle to name another act who have displayed such a mastery of diverse styles in the space of ten years, without their output sounding utterly confused and piecemeal.

Okay, so a lot of the songs on Meet the Eels are obvious picks and most Eels fans could name them without looking at their album’s track listing, and therefore wonder what the point of this release is. The point of the release is someone like me, someone aware of the band, but that wasn’t entirely convinced by their greatness. In terms of that, it’s pretty much job done for this compilation, because within months of purchasing it I tracked down all the band’s studio albums to that point. That doesn’t make this compilation obsolete though, as it contains one of the finest examples of a live track as a definitive version of a song (The string assisted “Dirty Girl” is significantly superior and stately than the scuzzy and fun original on Shootenanny!) and the band’s simultaneously hilarious and sinister cover of “Get Ur Freak On” and also collects most of the band’s finest moments to date.

While I have to admit that there are other amazing tunes in the band’s songbook which are not featured on Meet the Eels, and really should have been, perhaps it is best that they are not, as the discovery of these tracks in the context of their parent albums is one of the joys of being a fan of The Eels. Also it means that “Ugly Love” doesn’t run away with the award for most heart-rending tune on the CD on this remarkable compilation.

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