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Of live albums and eels with strings

13/02/2011
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(yes it came out in 2006 but I only got it recently. Just so you don’t wonder about the random decision to talk about a half-decade old release)

As a concept, most live albums fly over my head. They had a fairly notable role before the era of VHS, DVD and Youtube as a way for people to get any sort of idea about the live power of their favourite acts, but the more we’ve gained access to visual media, the more pointless they’ve become. The live experience isn’t only about hearing the music, it’s also about seeing the music – a pure audio recording of a live concert loses half of its power. Hearing an audience cheer at the middle of a song for something is far from being able to actually see what they’re cheering for.

I do think there’s still a vaguely defined space for particular types of live albums however. Whilst your standard gig recording will be fairly unexciting when presented in just audio, there’s still something intriguing in concert recordings where the artist does not simply go through the catalogue offering watered-down versions of what they’ve done in studio, instead deciding to play around with the songs and alter them. Special one-off gigs where the artists have gone onto hire an orchestra, a choir or other usual kitchen sink accessories to beef up the sound, stripping down the sound to bare unplugged minimum, and other ways of toying around with the songs and giving them another form, another dimension outside the simple direct transformation from studio to live. Recordings of these still offer some sort of worth in pure audio format because they do not rely solely on the concert participation feel – they’re musical experiments in their own right and interesting even in audio only. In other words, I actually get something out of them and do not necessarily long for the visual accompaniment because the whole point is doing something different with the sound rather than simply offering what we know already.

It’s the idea behind With Strings: Live at Town Hall. Everett backs himself with a string quartet and two multi-instrumentalists, goes mostly unplugged, switches a drumkit to a minimal, improvised percussion set consisting of trashcans and suitcases, and performs stripped-down versions of his back catalogue. There’s little crowd noise outside the small cheers at the start of each song when the fans realise what’s about to be played and Everett speaks a total of one sentence to the audience. The atmosphere is delicate and intimate. With Strings isn’t about the live experience: it’s about giving the songs a new place to exist.

This results in With Strings being one of the better live albums I’ve heard.

This sort of intimate and somewhat minimal and fragile sense of [i]prettiness[/i] is something Everett tends to master fairly well and taking it from the token album moments to span a whole setlist works wonders. The string quartet, while not particularly emphasised for the most of the album, provides a great melodic backing often responsible for translating the largest hooks to the new setting while at the same time providing the actual backbone for most songs. The minimalist rhythm section appears infrequently and when it does, you don’t particularly miss a fuller version. And while most of With Strings is spent sitting down and enjoying the peace and prettiness of everything, the stripped down format offers plenty of versatility when it chooses to act on it: “Trouble With Dreams” is probably best described as string quartet punk, the rendition of “Hey Man” is just as fun and raucous as the original but now with more band interaction, and the ghostly, creepy medley of “Flyswatter” and “Novocaine for the Soul” amps up the sinister feel mildly present in both songs and makes it the central focus. The chosen covers integrate perfectly with the originals and hey, even the Dylan one sounds good.

Most notably, With Strings offers arguably the definitive version of “Things That Grandchildren Should Know” – the possibility of which didn’t even cross my mind beforehand because I hold the original as my favourite song in the Eels catalogue. The majority of the song is played faithfully to the original which already consisted of mainly guitar and strings in its studio rendition, but at the end Everett begins to hum the theme melody of Blinking Lights and Other Revelations over the instrumental outro. Not only does it work perfectly, but the added thematic context it brings an additional oomph when viewing not only With Strings but even Blinking Lights as a whole as both begin with that exact same melody. As a person who adores thematic unity, it manages to turn an already touching song into an even more essential piece of the larger while.

I’m still waiting for a live album that doesn’t focus on reinterpreting songs and still sounds something more than discography filler, but With Strings is one of those live albums that no fan of the artist should pass. Even without first-hand experience I’m fairly sure that the DVD version is the superior one overall between the two, but With Strings works excellently enough as something to simply listen and sink to. Everett has always been a musician who positions great importance on the intimate link between the music and the listener and a pours a lot of his own personal self into the songs: an intimate, stripped down context close to the listener like this feels like a natural home for his works.

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