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MUSIC REVIEW

Eels slip into a stripped-down sound

''Are you ready to not rock?" eels frontman E asked midway through the band's Wednesday performance at the Somerville Theatre. Both the question and the answer it received -- an enthusiastic ''yes" -- were emblematic of the career of Mark Oliver Everett. Since 1992's ''A Man Called (E)," Everett has put his sizable talents through so many configurations -- studio hermit, alt-rocker, pop adept, old coot -- that if he wants to recast his songs as chamber-pop ditties, as he's doing on the current ''eels With Strings" tour, then his fans are happy to let him.

In a way, the timing couldn't be better. Eels' latest album, ''Blinking Lights and Other Revelations," is the most straightforward in years, with E less interested in studio experimentation and sonic masks than in naked emotion. Onstage, the stripped-down arrangements -- the lineup consisted of a string quartet, an upright bass, and a guitarist/multi-instrumentalist, while E flitted between piano, organ, toy piano, and guitar -- ensured that E's breathy, stonefaced deadpan didn't compromise the mournful warmth of material such as ''The Stars Shine in the Sky Tonight" and the anti-torch song ''I'm Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart."

More often, though, the strings were better at conveying menace than comfort. A touch of the sinister laced the most successful numbers, like the snarling, Bo Diddley-like ''Dog Faced Boy" and ''Trouble With Dreams," which culminated in a magnificent percussion breakdown. The strings were laid down in favor of maracas and shakers as guitarist Chet Lyster (affectionately dubbed ''The Chet") pounded away on a drum kit composed of nothing more than a garbage can and a suitcase.

That drum kit was one of many signs that E hasn't abandoned affectation completely. Instead of an opening act, the audience was treated to ''Crocodile Gena," a stop-motion children's short from Russia about a lonely crocodile building a house in order to make friends. E himself talked to the audience primarily in ironic snippets, brandished an apparently unnecessary walking stick, and dramatically lit up a cigar while playing ''Flyswatter." Often, however, the musician, whom a set-opening career retrospective dubbed the band's ''1 Deeply Troubled Permanent Member," dropped the guise of detachment. He simply became a man singing songs.

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