It’s easy to envision Eels leader Mark Oliver Everett, aka E, as a tinkerer. Since the beginning of his career, he’s been fascinated with off-kilter arrangements, slightly left-of-center instrumentation, and an aesthetic that’s always sounded like it spent time locked in a box of medicated toys. Combined with a lyrical fearlessness that doesn’t flinch even at the spectre of death, E’s sound can make for some arresting moments.
He’s also prolific, with 2005 seeing the release of Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, a double album that found E opening the floodgates and almost daring listeners to stay afloat. Over the course of 33 songs, E covered all of his traditional topics and seemed to find every possible permutation of his delicate sound. It’s a challenging record, not only for its subject matter but also for its length. An unexpected bonus of the tour that followed was that much of the best material from Blinking Lights was placed in the Eels continuum, showing that for all the sonic detours E has taken, he’s never really strayed from the path he began to walk on Day One.
That tour was also remarkable for the shakeup that E wrought by turning his band into a learning-on-the-fly bunch of multi-instrumentalists, and anchoring them with a string quartet. The results, as a whole, were spectacular and are now documented by the DVD release of Eels with Strings: Live at Town Hall. Filmed on June 30, 2005, the set finds Eels packing the setlist with favorites from their ten-year run.
The songs stand well enough on their own, but there’s something in the simple stage presentation that lends poignancy to the set’s best moments. Maybe it’s the simple, slightly rumpled gray suit that E wears, as if he’s been coaxed out of mourning in the shadows of some lonely, book-filled house. Maybe it’s the single spotlight that often shines on E and his weary delivery, which combine to give the impression that we’re witness to an internal monologue — an impression that’s only strengthened by E’s tendency to slowly make his way to to different instruments or parts of the stage. As I watched, I kept thinking of the old man from Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire who mused on the passing of a Berlin he knew as a younger man.
With few exceptions, the songs on Live at Town Hall maintain that pensive mood, and the string quartet format and other instruments rarely make E’s vision unrecognizable — at least with the quieter songs. “In the Yard, Behind the Church” is piano-based with lap steel accents, while a standout version of “I’m Going to Stop Pretending that I Didn’t Break Your Heart” balances musical saw and lonely electric guitar. “Railroad Man” continues to assert itself as one of E’s best songs, and “Novocaine for the Soul” gets a little noisy and avante garde, but blends its familiar sway with the sensation of a fever dream.
To these ears, “Flyswatter” undergoes the most radical reinterpretation, keeping its chiming melody, but quickly descending into an insectoid buzz of strings that breaks down even further into complete cacaphony — kind of like someone shook up the box of bees that makes up Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebees”. Truth be told, it’s kind of annoying, but it does wind up making a nice segue into “Novocaine for the Soul”. Of all the instrumentation that Eels pull out, though, probably the most surprisingly effective is the drum kit made from a trash can and suitcase. Close your eyes during their cover of the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina” or during “Trouble with Dreams” and you can’t even tell the difference.
Documentary-style interludes shot in black-and-white are interspersed throughout the performance segments (although only a few, such as the discussion of a band member getting dumped by his girlfriend leading into the lost-love tale of “Dirty Girl”, have anything to do with the songs), and there are a few bonus features. Overall, though, Town Hall is pretty much a performance video, and a pretty good one at that. In its best moments, Live at Town Hall completely draws you in, and when it’s not reaching those lofty heights, it’s still a solid performance. Plus, you probably finish watching it with a smile on your face after watching E and the band come out in their pajamas to perform “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” for a small crowd of aftershow die-hards.