With Strings: Live at Town Hall


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With Strings: Live at Town Hall Review

by Thom Jurek

Mark Oliver Everett, or "E," as he is more commonly known in rock & roll circles, did something magical in 2005 with the brilliant and moving double CD Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. According to his website, E was sitting in his L.A. backyard smoking a cigar, not wanting to tour, when he had the idea for an Eels concert with strings and a band that played melodica, celeste, lap steel, pump organs, and whatever else. And, like everything else he does, he went and put that band together: seven pieces with no proper drummer. This concert, recorded at New York's venerable Town Hall, was also filmed (the DVD contains eight more songs than the CD as well as interviews and other goodies). From the start, the gig feels special. E begins with "Blinking Lights (For Me)." His acoustic guitar sweetly introduces the set; the strings enter on the second verse. The sheer deadpan emotion calls the demons out of hiding and, as he looks at the world around him, he asks them to leave. Then Big Al's autoharp commences to start the theme for "Blinking Lights," and Chet plays a haunting celeste as the strings court the melody. But the drama begins on "Bus Stop Boxer," with its ambiguous introduction and assertive lyrics. One would think that, with nothing but a suitcase percussion kit, this would be the Eels "unplugged," all lilting and tender. There is plenty of that kind of intimacy here -- in fact the set is drenched with it -- but rock & roll makes an appearance on "Trouble with Dreams," and there's a hillbilly shake to "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)." The choice of covers here is spectacular as well: there's a hurried yet acceptable version of the Left Banke's "Pretty Ballerina" and a moving read of Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country." It's Chet's piano winding its way through the strings that provides an elegant yet spare backdrop for E's vocals there. The reverbed electric guitar that accompanies E's acoustic starts off the finest cover on the album, with E's read of Johnny Rivers' classic "Poor Side of Town." The version of "Novocaine for the Soul" on this set is so full of drama and tension that it's almost unbearable. The charm and nuance in these songs make for an essential document for Eels fans, and provide an inaccurate but utterly engaging portrait of E's songs in front of an audience. With Strings: Live at Town Hall has power and subtlety as well as pomp. E is walking the razored edge of his sometimes elegant, sometimes ragged performance, but offers no apologies. But then, he wouldn't be E if he did. The final cut here is also the final track from Blinking Lights, "Things the Grandchildren Should Know," and with the lap steel whining in the background and the strings shimmering around his voice, E lays out an acceptance of his life such as it is, whether he turns out like his father or not. There is something so powerful in his deadpan delivery that it can embarrass the listener. And yes, folks, that's a good thing. This is a document -- nothing more, nothing less -- and as such it's charming, beautiful, ragged, and honest. What more can you ask for?

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