For nearly a decade, Mark Oliver Everett (aka E), the only constant of the Los Angeles band Eels, has taken special pleasure in toying with his audience’s expectations. The Eels Orchestra shows of 2001 were followed by the gritty blues of 2002’s “Tour of Duty,” which in turn was succeeded by last year’s lovely and delicate, yet unsentimental “Eels With Strings” shows. This year’s “No Strings Attached” tour keeps the pattern going, featuring possibly the most stripped-down band E has assembled. But while the previous incarnation of Eels, no matter how widely the sound varied, showed E to be a master of whatever style he assayed, with the current show (premiered, as the others, at the Roxy), Eels comes a cropper.
As the lights go down, the calm, lovely wordless harmonies of the Beach Boys’ “Cabinessence” are replaced by pre-recorded feedback howls and screeches. The rest of the nearly two-hour set (including two encores) doesn’t vary much from that sound.
With only two guitars and a drummer, the sound is aggressively loud and tinny. (Krazy Al, who played bass on previous tours, is part of the band, but only occasionally plays percussion and keyboards, spending most of his time on dancing, doing calisthenics and making non sequitur comments such as “This is the triangle of hope” between songs, a bit of business that quickly grows old).
The band looks just as dark and monochromatic as the sound. Everyone has facial hair and is dressed in black clothes and shades: drummer Knuckles as a Civil War soldier, guitarist The Chet as a prison guard, Al as a bouncer in a tight black T-shirt and E looking like a mad airplane mechanic in a flight suit and goggles.
The sound is so unrelentingly ugly (an impression not helped by E’s distorted vocal sound) that early on it’s possible to believe this is just a perverse joke on E’s part. In the second song, he sings “Welcome to the rock show, a giant cock rock show.” But if it is a joke, it’s one that goes on way too long.
The new arrangements blunt the craft and beauty of his melodies, a sad development, given that E is one of the finest songwriters working today. “Mother Mary” was turned into a grinding jam, and even tunes that should have worked in this context — “Bus Stop Boxer,” “Dog Faced Boy” — sound rushed.
Only a double-time gospel take on “My Beloved Monster,” and the well-chosen covers break through: a thudding, ominous “I Put a Spell on You,” and “That’s Life,” the evening’s penultimate number, spat out like someone cutting off an argument, or flipping off a disgruntled customer.
Smoosh, the teen duo scheduled to open the show, canceled due to “problems with the labor board.”
Eels and Smoosh play a free show June 13 at New York’s World Financial Plaza.