Oxford Apollo

Do they rock? Kinda...

Apparently The Webb Brothers have a famous dad who wrote a few classic ’60s tunes. Fair play to them. Does this explain why they confine themselves to recreating the pop period 1964-66? Ask their therapist.

Do they rock? Kinda, in a shamelessly retro, bowl-haired, tight-trousered sort of way. Is this a problem? Not when they have sublime, softly crooned, alt-folk strums like ‘Are You Happy Now’ or ‘Beyond The Biosphere’ under their authentically vintage belts – plus sparkling newies like ‘Can’t Believe You’re Gone’ and ‘Maroon’. It’s crafted but low-voltage stuff, songs you can admire rather than love. But after 40 minutes in a Webb time warp of half-timbered classicism, the dawn of the trashy ’70s seems like an enticing prospect.

“This is the first time I’ve ever actually played a show on heroin,” deadpans Eels chappy Mark ‘E’ Everett. “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be, but it’s not as good either.”

E, you see, is pretty much ‘in character’ for tonight’s set. Led onstage in what look like prison pyjamas, he makes references to being fresh out of the madhouse, and slips into music-hall clown mode at various points. His band, as ever, sport zany fancy dress.

It’s absurdist cabaret with a serious undertow; Neil Young meets Neil Innes. Much like other recent Eels shows, this is a sit-down affair beginning with an overture medley of E-tunes and distinguished by eccentric, acoustic, jazz-orchestral instrumentation. This emphatically non-rock approach is brave and bewitching at first, but increasingly irritating over the long haul. One minute Everett is drawing us in with exquisite, spare, heartfelt ballads like ‘Climbing To The Moon’ or ‘Last Stop: This Town’, the next he pushes us away with the Beck-meets-Brecht oompah-theatrics of ‘I Like Birds’ and other grating Dadaist whimsy. E introduces ‘It’s A Motherf***er’ and ‘Fucker’ as examples of “the 16 or 17 songs I have written with ‘fucker’ in the titles.” It’s a great joke. Then he seems to play them [I]all[/I], which is less funny. Two hours of tunes, some of them one-joke asides, many drab and forgettable.

Quantity over quality with too few emotional peaks, Eels hammer home the fact you can have too much of a moderately good thing.