Why do bands insist on releasing live albums? Don’t they realize they never have any real impact, that they’re often dismissed to pawn shops, garage sales and flea markets along with copies of “classic” live albums such as Frampton Comes Alive and Kiss’s Alive series? The obvious answer is that live albums are a quick way for a band to make a couple extra dollars to fund the recording of a proper album, to feed a crack addiction, whatever. In some cases, the motive doesn’t matter. But in the case of Eels’ With Strings: Live at Town Hall (the band’s fourth official live release, if you’re counting previous tour-only sets), the intention seems important.
And that intent here is to present a more intimate version of Eels, which is essentially the opposite of 2003’s Tour of Duty, during which the band played straight-up rock. Live at Town Hall finds the man called E (born Mark Oliver Everett) backed by a minimal band: barely any percussion, strings (hence the album title) and a saw player. The stripped-down crew lends itself well to this set of songs, a large portion of which are taken from 2005’s decent return to form, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. The performance feels reasonably intimate, the group plays well together, and E’s vocals still occupy the usual melancholic space.
But only a few moments stand out. And that’s unfortunate, because E is at his best when he is singing sincere, intimate, and quiet songs, which is what Live at Town Hall and its adjoining With Strings tour seemed to be striving for. The song choices are excellent (“I’m Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart,” “Girl From the North Country,” “The Only Thing I Care About”), but not a lot here will keep the album from ending up at garage sales next to copies of Cheap Trick at Budoken. The With Strings experience is better suited to this album’s accompanying DVD format, where some of the performances’ intimacy is better translated. The whole package just seems a lot more interesting than what is presented here.