Music News

Eels with Strings

Guess you had to be there, at Town Hall in New York City last July, though from the sounds of it, not so much. Thomas Bartlett, writing last summer on Salon, sent his own postcard lamenting how his beloved band went "all chamber/acoustic refined/wimpy," resulting in music that came off as "desperately over-rehearsed and lifeless." I take his word for it, because one step removed from the concert-hall audience, the Eels' oeuvre now comes off doubly distant in this strings 'n' things setting. I haven't been this bored by a live album since my mom bought Hot August Night II and wore out the eight-track in the LeBaron.

What has always made the Eels so appealing isn't Mark Oliver Everett's poor-poor-pitiful-me songwriting, of which he is an unsurpassed master of mope, or his voice, which sounds like the hoarse whisper of a guy who's been on a 23-year crying jag. It's how The Man Called E commingled his sad-sack autobiographical storytelling with musical surprises — the way he sprinkled in some hard-rock crunch amid all that soggy college-radio heartbreak. Here, with his band augmented by strings, autoharps, musical saws, and other somber-shit extras, the music all sounds and feels the same; there's no variety at all, no slap in the face to snap you out of the tremulous stupor. "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)" and "Novocaine for the Soul" sound just like "Bus Stop Boxer" and "It's a Motherfucker"—and so it goes and goes for 22 songs, which might as well be one looooooong one.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky