With Strings--Live at Town Hall

(Vagrant; 2006)

By Conrad Amenta | 16 March 2006

I have a soft spot for E, and it’s hard to justify. His band is by turn a suicide confessional and a child’s plaything. Awkward humor often falling flat, his lyrics sometimes take the form of facile power-fantasy and are becoming harder and harder to characterize as satire. His band was first signed to Dreamworks, a major label of literally Spielbergian proportions, and then to Vagrant, an indie responsible for Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day and Alkaline Trio. And he’s ugly (“Winston Churchill in drag”). But I still find it difficult not to love the guy, especially at his most mordant and defeated.

This may be because E, for all his self-enforced schmaltz and embarrassed gangliness, displays a degree of musicianship that he’s rarely given credit for. The proof is plentiful on his 2000 and 2002 self-released live albums (retrospectively showcasing the Eels’ Electro-shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy tours) and new live effort, Live at Town Hall, a stripped-down, acoustic-with-strings performance in New York. Frontman E (who is backed by vastly different bands on each live release) rearranges his work, often to brilliant results, by first embellishing his lesser known songs and then subverting his already sparse collection of pseudo-hits. The notion that ultimately comes through the process clearest is that in a genre saturated by standardized angst and forced feeling, E’s live endeavors might actually indicate a greater degree of self-analysis and talent than the Eels singles and stupid music videos imply. While E’s studio efforts are often misunderstood as mediocre pop throwaways, his live albums reveal a likeable ability to adapt and persevere. In a nutshell, the Eels’ live albums do what live albums are supposed to do by providing depth to the band’s catalogue; the Eels are so far away from the marginal success they enjoyed in the late 90’s that it would be hard to interpret Live at Town Hall as the simple cash-in so many live albums aspire to be.

The one and only time I saw the Eels perform (touring for Souljacker), E was a true showman, interacting with the crowd and rocking hard in his Unibomber attire of the day. Don’t expect the same on Town Hall, though. As E’s lyrical modality has turned from a plea for help to the mildly threatening, the modality of his music has changed inversely from the grunge-lite of Beautiful Freak to the feel-better pop of Daisies of the Galaxy and Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, ensuring that there would always exist the tonal contrast upon which the band’s music is predicated. E began with distortion and songs about misunderstood children, flowers, etcetera; he ended with quaint acoustic strumming and threats of outright violence. Understood in this way, Town Hall is a success.

But understood in another way, as an album on its own, Town Hall isn’t without its flaws. For what is the band’s first widely available live release, E’s early material is underrepresented. “Your Lucky Day (In Hell)” from Beautiful Freak or “Efil’s God” and “My Descent Into Madness” (or really anything) from Electro-shock Blues seem tailor-made for a strings complement, at least more so than the faithful renditions of “Bus Stop Boxer” or “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” present here. Likewise, the disposable “If You See Natalie” and “I Like Birds” are weak choices from a catalogue that lends itself to gentleness and the possibility of additional arrangements. This album might have been a definitive statement, showcasing E’s more poignant and inspired moments to this point in his career, but instead it opts for a more current reading that is about as transient and inessential as “a more current reading” sounds.

Of the new material, high points include the sudden percussive outburst in “Trouble With Dreams” and the songwriter’s pop of “Railroad Man.” The string-heavy “Flyswatter” segues into minor hit “Novocaine for the Soul,” thus bridging newer material to old while also exhibiting the extreme extent of the aforementioned rearrangements. Fan favorites “It’s a Motherfucker” and “I’m Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart” both argue for the strength of E’s later releases. And, on their own, any of these songs might temporarily sustain the argument that E is in fact the talented mad-genius/singer-songwriter that Dreamworks tried to market him as at the beginning of his career. It’s just that, when compared to the band’s previous live albums, Town Hall sometimes lacks either the all-inclusiveness that might draw in the casual listener or the adventurous track selection that would appeal to longtime fans (though the inclusion of two covers, Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina” and Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” feebly suggest the album’s collectible status).

That the Eels have kept at it, in the face of a collapsing label, personal adversity, a constantly shifting lineup and a possibly manic-depressive principle songwriter, continues to be their greatest strength. Instead of disappearing after an unanticipated sophomore album or essentially becoming an Eels tribute band, they’ve grown, painfully and not without their share of missteps, into their own scarred and affected beast. Live at Town Hall simply contributes the innocuous and obligatory live album to what is now more than a decade of releases. Though he’s not (and has never claimed to be) perfect, it may be time to acknowledge that E, with all his far too visible imperfections, isn’t going anywhere. There’s probably a reason for that.