Last Thursday night Mark Oliver Everett's band Eels performed at New York's Town Hall in an evening billed as "Eels with strings," which turned out to be a seven-piece ensemble: a string quartet fronted by Everett and two jack-of-all-trades characters, between the three of them playing piano, guitar, celeste, pump organ, upright bass, pedal steel guitar, autoharp, musical saw and a makeshift junkyard drum kit. The players were all excellent, the band had a brilliant and lengthy songbook to draw from and Everett's voice was as heart-crushingly desolate and lovely as ever, but the concert was strangely unmoving and even boring. As is so often the case when indie rock bands gain the kind of middle-aged NPR audience that can support a theater tour like this one (Town Hall is not a venue likely to attract younger fans, even if they were up to paying the $25 ticket prices), and go all chamber/acoustic refined/wimpy to celebrate, the music felt coldly pristine, desperately over-rehearsed and lifeless.
Everett is an exceptional, often inspired writer of melodies, but he has a few crutches, a small collection of too oft-repeated melodic and harmonic patterns, which became particularly evident and intrusive during this concert due to a not particularly well-thought-out set list. There were times when the songs -- nearly all less than three minutes long, and simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus structures -- sounded like a series of variations on a well-done, approaching trite, theme. An hour and a half and nearly 30 songs into the concert I was longing for a bridge -- not a position I find myself in very often.
My disappointment in the show was particularly acute because the band was touring to promote "Blinking Lights and Other Revelations," one of my favorite records released so far this year and the best songwriting record since Nick Cave's "Lyre of Orpheus/Abattoir Blues" came out last year. It's a shimmering collection of 33 loosely connected songs and instrumentals with devastating lyrics and heavenly melodies that, in a nifty trick, feels both casually tossed off and deliberately, impeccably crafted. Of course, much of the material for the concert was drawn from this record. But short, simple songs that live began to seem slight, repetitive and inane come across on the record as part of a deep and expansive plan, and gradually accumulate into a state of grace.
The record is available for download on all the big digital stores, and while I heartily recommend getting the whole thing, if you feel like being selective my pick hits are "Suicide Life," "Dust of Ages," "If You See Natalie," Railroad Man," "Losing Streak" and "I'm Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart." There are also two songs available for free downloads, "Old Shit/New Shit" and "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)."