This is it. The motherlode. If you’ve ever followed the adventurers of that most unlikely of rock bands, the Eels, then this box set is something you’ve been waiting for. Pristine, beautiful, unadorned represses of the complete Dreamworks album collection, starting with that beautifully addled debut ‘beautiful freak’ and running all the way through to the stoned blues of ‘Shootenanny!’, this is a collection that demonstrates once and for all that the Eels simply don’t do bad albums. The collection even finds time to stop off along the way for a run through the ‘electroshock blues show’, recorded somewhere in England back in 1998, which comes as an exclusive bonus for people buying this limited (and now, it seems, sold out) box set and this alone is a good reason for many to go reaching for their wallets. As with any great cult band, the Eels original vinyl pressings are hard to track down (although these reissues are all available separately) and so gathering together all their albums in one place is, without doubt, an enticing proposition for the discerning fan.
So what do you get for your ninety-odd pounds? In total the box set weighs in with eight heavy-weight vinyl platters, with each album’s original packaging faithfully recreated. As such ‘beautiful freak’, ‘Souljacker’ and ‘Shootenanny!’ are packaged in simple sleeves with printed inner bags, ‘Electroshock blues’ and Daisies of the galaxy’ are gatefold releases (with the former album being a double) and the previously-unreleased-on-vinyl live album contains two discs in printed inners and with liner notes on the rear. The box itself is a weighty archive box, similar to that used for the Miles Davis ‘bitches brew’ box set, open at one end so that the albums simply slide in. Shocking blue in colour, the front side has a rendering of E’s face whilst the rear simply shows each of the album sleeves a thumbnail. It’s a weighty box and the discs are rock solid, but it’s disappointing that no-one thought to celebrate such a great band with a booklet of some description – fans are, after all, expected to pay a substantial amount for the set and, compared to recent box sets by the likes of Mogwai (“central belters”), you’d have thought the label could have made a bigger effort. Nonetheless, whilst extras are few on the ground, the exclusive live album is one hell of an enticement and the sound quality is second-to-none across the board. Moreover, one thing that is included is an MP3 download of the complete set, so you can enjoy this seminal collection of albums on the move, a seemingly obvious addition that certain labels still seem to overlook. Not the most generous of sets then, but highly desirable nonetheless.
Not for the causal purchaser perhaps, the ultimate purpose of this set, I imagine, is to recapture the pleasure of first hearing these marvellous albums, and to this end the box set achieves its aims magnificently. Placing the sumptuously weighty ‘beautiful freak’ on the turntable for the first time I’m instantly transported back to the late nineties and to my very first play through of the album. Back then I didn’t have the luxury of a turntable and I had bought the album on CD, and so, hearing it here on vinyl for the first time, it’s like hearing the album anew all over again. It sounds utterly amazing, with bass response far outstripping the CD version and the dreamy lo-fi production of the album sounding better than ever. An album that soundtracked my life for the best part of a year, ‘beautiful freak’ is so ingrained in my consciousness that I am pretty sure I know every single note, and yet the vinyl still managed to surprise with it’s warm, rich tones and tracks like the beautiful title track swamp the senses in a whole new way. It remains a remarkable debut, a weird indie/pop/rock/hip hop mix that is gleefully unique, drawing from a mix of influences a mile long and twisting them into something wholly new. At the time the only artist operating in even the same hemisphere was Beck (and inevitably the Eels drew comparisons), but where Beck’s music fused blues, punk and hip hop into something unspeakably cool and sleek, the Eels tapped into the inner child with songs like the oddly choral ‘flower’ and the squally ‘my beloved monster’, managing to be both geeky and playfully naïve at the same time – a difficult combination to pull off if not, as in this case, wholly genuine and unaffected.
The aforementioned pressing quality is present across the whole set and the darkly claustrophobic ‘electroshock blues’ benefits from being pressed on not one, but two, sumptuous platters. The production on the album is a thing of underrated beauty and it is truly allowed to shine here. Long my favourite Eels album, songs like ‘cancer for the cure’ rattle out of the speakers with a new found vitality and the oddball artwork certainly benefits from being presented in the 12” format. Unlike some recent album pressings, it’s clear that the Eels artwork was properly prepared and so there’s no fuzzy renderings or blurry, pixilated images spoiling the covers (Blur, I’m looking at you), which is a strong mark in the box set’s favour.
Where ‘electroshock blues’ is an album deserving of a whole essay in its own right when one considers the truly appalling circumstances in which it was made, ‘daisies of the galaxy’ ranks as one of the more surprising follow up albums. Harking back to the naivety of the debut but with occasional spasms of misery, the album was sold on the back of a single (Mr E’s beautiful blues’) that was, in typically contrary fashion, officially left off the album (although it does appear as an uncredited track on side 2). A strange move in terms of marketing, it actually makes perfect sense musically as the album is much less poppy than the single might suggest, and the song sits better as a little bonus rather than as a key album track, although whimsy is not entirely absent as ‘I like birds’ attests. It’s a great album, but one that requires a touch of patience from the listener, as opposed to the more accessible ‘beautiful freak’ which unveiled its charms with comparative ease. Given time, however, and ‘Daisies of the galaxy’ proves to be a most rewarding piece of work and, like the other albums here, it seems to truly benefit from being pressed on vinyl.
Having hidden the album’s most successful single at the end of the album on ‘Daisies…’, E went a step better on ‘souljacker’ and simply eschewed singles altogether, or at least that was the record label’s predictably humourless view. Actually ‘Souljacker’ is a great album, in which E moved away from personal narratives to story-telling with the result that the music was bolder, brighter and altogether more energetic than before. An album that definitely benefits from the vinyl touch, ‘souljacker’ saw the Eels taking on the new millennium armed with covers of Missy Elliot’s ‘get ur groove on’, taut beats and occasional blasts of razor-sharp guitar. The live shows around this period were particularly energetic and ‘souljacker’ captures the eels at their most confrontational with tracks recalling the likes of the Butthole surfers causing the listener to sit up and take note of E’s newly-revitalized approach.
The album collection ends with the lamentably underrated ‘shootenanny!’, an album that opens with gritty, fuzzed-up blues before doing its best to tour the width and breadth of E’s imagination via garage rock, acoustic laments, beat-driven weirdness and everything in between. A quintessential Eels album, ‘shootenanny!’ is almost like a ‘best of’ as it genre hops from branch to branch, the one connecting thread remaining E’s fragile voice as he narrates yet more tales from America’s underbelly. It’s hard to believe, listening to the album now, that a number of critics took against the band when this record first appeared, but despite the fickle nature of the press, Eels fans remained undaunted, and, with luck, this box set will allow fans who missed out on the disc the first time round the chance to reassess its charms.
For me, the most exciting aspect of the box set was, without a doubt, the double live album ‘Electro-shock blues show’, which was recorded as the band criss-crossed England with Pulp (themselves hitting a career high with ‘this is hardcore’) all the way back in 1998. Anyone who has ever seen the Eels will attest to the electric vitality of the band on stage and this album presents the band in brilliantly warts ‘n’ all form. From the urgent psychedelia of ‘cancer for the cure’ (emerging out of a music box intro), via ‘fingertips part III’ and a particularly gruelling ‘going to your funeral part 1’, the first side of the album alone is worth the extra outlay. However, there’s plenty more to go. E goes the full Nick Cave on the garage-rock ‘souljacker part 1’ whilst rocked-up versions of ‘my beloved monster’ and ‘novocaine for the soul’, not to mention a brilliantly extended ‘not ready yet’, effortlessly take me back to the second stage, Reading ’97 when I was lucky enough to witness the Eels in action for myself. Any record that has the power to transport the listener back to a treasured memory is invaluable and so, if you’ve ever seen the Eels live, this record is an absolute must.
In the final analysis, the Eels box set is an absolute joy from start to finish. The albums are varied and endlessly entertaining, whilst the exclusive live album is a bonus to kill for. It is a shame that no one thought to add an extended booklet, I would love to have had a collection of pictures and anecdotes to work through, but the real joy of this set is having the opportunity to hear these much loved albums once again as if for the first time. You might imagine, of course, that it is easy to be blasé about cost when so much material is provided for the site, but in this instance I was very kindly offered the chance to review the album in .wav file format and was so impressed by the stunning sound quality that I immediately ordered (and have subsequently listened to) the actual set so my money is, as they say, where my mouth is on this one. The Eels remain unique – a gloriously ragged set of musicians loosely grouped about the enigmatic and furiously intelligent E – and this box set provides all the evidence you’ll ever need for their brilliance. This is a box set to treasure and if you are able to track one down, you’ll not regret your impulsivity for a moment. What we have here is nothing more or less than an immaculate pressing of some of the greatest indie albums ever produced and it is more than worth the outlay.