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Published: 2006/04/16
by Randy Ray

Live at Town Hall – Eels with Strings

Vagrant 423

Back in the dayI shake the dust off the dust covers that shield dust from the platters stacked nice and neat on a dusty shelf: Frampton Comes Alive, Rock n’ Roll Animal, Nighthawks at the Diner, Rust Never Sleepswell, enough of that. Musicians used to release live albums as career-defining statements that ricocheted vision, radio-friendly songs, the guitar solo as behemoth icon and a few Chuck Berry gems to round out the suburban mix. However, with the ubiquity of live music in the late 20th century, the Hipster Comes Alive as a product of artistic statement has slowly faded away.

Eels, led by the charismatic Mark Oliver Everett, aka E, sidesteps this issue by combining 1990s-era strings with an unplugged venture that reinvents the early 21st century with big raspy Springsteen-meets-Waits vocals in a stone sober back alley. The arrangements are tight and brief and swirl with intimacy, but the real treat is when the Eels collective explore melody and rhythm, such as their headbanging percusso jaunt on “Trouble With Dreams” and the eerie Haunted Mansion tones of “Flyswatter." On the latter, in the foreground mix, an instrument that sounds like a trippy theremin hovers as the band enters into one of their few jam forays. Perhaps less composition and more avant-garde nails on a chalkboard’ heebie-jeebies like this spooky insect-destroyer number would help push this live work into truly unique geography. In the end, melodic tunes negate lazy satanic sneers.

Indeed, speaking of Tom Waits, there are several surreal mysterio pearls on this sublime live show. This is Waits, circa 1975 before the black cigarettes had taken their toll on his vocal cords. It is also Springsteen with stronger lyrical content. The Eels buzz through an intoxicating 22 trails of tears with nary a note of redundant reductionism. To be sure, this is also complex music wrapped in a very simple shade of beat black exotica. Dylan, as he does so often these days, makes an appearance when the band covers “Girl From the North Country” on piano, cello and warm yet wrenching vocals. “Poor Side of Town” features electric and acoustic guitars and has Everett welcoming back an old girlfriend from the rich man’s paradise — bittersweet, honest and sincere with another aching heartbreak plea for peace. “Spunky” shoots towards the stars, hits its target and never lets go while a rotating piano lick colors the pathos; “I’m Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart” just about says it all as the singer hits an apologetic epiphany that circles remorse and stops at depressed dejectionwhere did she go and how does she hear these words?

Back in the day — yesterday, ten, twenty-five, thirty years ago — they (the eternal THEY) made albums like this and we held onto them until the dust collected on the album cover and edges but never really got deep down inside the soul of the record. And one night, ten years gone, it’ll come off the shelf and back onto its true home: “One day, the world will be ready for you and wonder how they didn’t see”

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