At this point in his career, about the only thing one can reasonably expect from Eels leader Mark Oliver Everett is that he’ll do something unexpected. Last time Eels played Los Angeles, he fronted a grinding electric blues-rock band; at the Roxy Thursday night, Everett was backed by a string quartet. What makes such musical turnabouts even more impressive is that his reach has yet to exceed his grasp — no matter what style he assays, Everett makes it work. He is the rarest of all things in today’s musical landscape — an original willing to pursue his vision wherever it takes him.
The new lineup reflects the mood on his new album, “Blinking Lights and Other Revelations” (Vagrant), a loosely structured song cycle on fate, family, growing up and heredity. But the strings (along with standup bass, guitar keyboards and, occasionally, a musical saw) bring an extra layer of pathos to the mix, with the first-person narratives of “Railroad Man” and “The Stars Shine in the Sky Tonight” approaching the humanity and nuanced observations of Tom Waits and Randy Newman. Older songs are recast and given more depth. The singer of “Bus Stop Boxer” sounds even more benighted, the saw moaning behind him undercutting his pugnacious posing. And, as he has on past tours, Everett pulls out covers that perfectly illustrate the roots of his new sound. This time out it’s a note-perfect version of the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina” and a lovely, tender reading of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.”
Considering how many of the evening’s songs deal with death or people living on society’s edge, the show had its share of humor and optimism. Eels were preceded by a witty faux-promotional film giving a history of the band (“28 transitory members and one deeply troubled permanent member”) and, during the show, Everett got into a couple mock shouting matches with the aud, but the set ended with “Things the Grandchildren Should Know,” a song that included the lyrics “I do some stupid things/but my heart’s in the right place” and “I’m a very thankful man.”
Eels play New York’s Town Hall on June 30.