With a band as prolific as The Eels (who’ve cut eight albums since 1995), it’s surprising that they’ve taken this long to release a live record. “Eels with Strings Live at Town Hall” strips down and flips around familiar songs from the band’s repertoire with varying levels of success, but the overall effect is the brilliantly arresting and enjoyable movement of frontman E’s raspy voice through the night. E’s deep croons bind the Eels’ entire body of work, and here their fascinating timbre and emotion is captured in the heat of performance.
Previous Eels albums such as “Electroshock Blues” feature a multifarious array of stylings, from industrial percussion to mournful pop ballads with a taste of aggressive jazz. This considered, “Live at Town Hall” is a unique chance to see a much more unified and raw experience from an eclectic band. The inherently limited instrumentation and natural energy of a single performance is a captivating experience we are now, thankfully, privy to.
Since orchestral strings make appearances on many Eels albums, it’s strange here that E considered them important enough to put into the title of his album. The strings here are too often used in the generic rock tradition, doing long moody sweeps under guitar chords to create a vague ambiance. It’s a nice amplification of emotion a lot of the time, but occasionally it feels more like a prompt for Stephen Tyler to tilt his head back and turn his microphone upside down. The addition of strings becomes much more interesting when those strings are creatively employed — showcased in jazzy melodies on “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living),” providing the bulk of the instrumentation on “Bus Stop Boxer,” or creating an unsettling but focused backup on “Trouble with Dreams.”
Unfortunately, most of the orchestral strings are used in a less interesting manner. This makes the songs sound alike, almost dragging them into a boring train of epic wail after epic wail. Many of the songs (“If You See Natalie,” “Poor Side of Town” or “Spunky”) fall into this category and are largely forgettable. Luckily, the consistently impressive quality of album’s songs, as well as the occasional infusion of hard, primal drumming, keeps this from always being the case. When the tracks are as good as Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” or when E shouts with unbridled raw passion as he does on “Bus Stop Boxer,” he breaks the confinements of this stereotype and elevates the album to noteworthy status.
“Live at Town Hall” is best when it allows the rhythm to fuel E’s impassioned moaning; some of the greatest successes in E’s performance are when he throws in some drums and starts to enjoy himself a little more. The first time percussion appears is on “Trouble with Dreams,” an aggressive, successful tune played mostly on strings and underscored by a creepy, soft keyboard line. Other buoyant songs, such as “I Like Birds” and “Losing Streak” are not only welcome departures, but also, assumingly, legal requirements to abate audience suicide. There are some truly great ballads on the record, but it’s an overdue bone thrown to the audience when E starts to vigorously drive his songs.
Sometimes, the group’s ambition goes too far. While their background in well produced, intelligent pop sounds make experiments in dissonance refreshing, it’s called dissonance for a reason. The arrangements are all a little more unsettling and less comfortable than they were the first time around, exemplified by the eerie but effective bending keyboard on “Bus Stop Boxer.” Less triumphant are “Novocaine for the Soul” and “Flyswatter,” two striking failures of the album. Both are bold, creative covers that turn the originals around and create unpleasant, difficult tracks representative of their unsettling subject matter. On these tracks, E changes the instrumentation, the arrangements, the mood and the fact that they were formerly good.
The concert really shines when it kicks into the closing section. The last four songs provide a sweeping crescendo from the aptly titled “Suicide Life,” to the optimistic drive of “Losing Streak” to the wild exuberance of “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living).” Finally, after whipping the audience into a passionate frenzy, yelling “sing!” on “Hey Man” with psychotic fervor, E returns to the peaceful and reflective “Things the Grandchildren Should Know.” The result is a vibrant connection between performer and audience that never stops. If sitting and listening to the end of the album whilst pondering astrophysics is a powerful and uplifting experience, being in the audience must have been pure catharsis.