Reading what a few serious critics have to say about the matter, it seems that live albums are viewed with no little weariness and great cynicism. Perhaps they’ve been suffered one too many by-the-numbers- run-throughs of the greatest hits set; the live albums and EPs I know are mostly pretty interesting, and offer a fresh take on the material.
Doing the with strings tour is another frowned upon mid-life crisis moment for a band, it seems. And yet, and yet, they make for some of my favourite live recordings. This may be because in the case of two bands whose orchestral performances I’ve loved, the orchestra was very much a natural part of the music.
Firstly there was Tindersticks’ 1995 album The Bloomsbury Theatre 12.3.95, with its beautiful live renditions of songs from their first two albums; songs that on record already featured the same orchestration, granted, but for obvious logistical and financial reasons the band didn’t tend to lug a full orchestra round with them everywhere they played, so it’s still a thrill to hear the songs played live with the orchestra. Admittedly, the whole thing was meticulously set up because it was to be released as an album, so great care was taken to position every mic for the recording as much as for the performance. In a way, it’s like a one-take album recorded in a big open studio in front of a warmly appreciative audience.
Secondly there was the 1997 album A Short Album About Love, by The Divine Comedy. It’s a live, but not quite live album, in that it was recorded at the sound-check before a gig, although versions of some songs from that gig would be later used as b-sides to singles from the album. Again, The Divine Comedy already had a strong history of orchestral and baroque material, so to hear them played live in their full resplendence is a joy, but not a total shock to the system.
With Strings: Live at Town Hall is quite different from each of these albums. In it’s own muted way, though, it is still full of charm. This is no warm, lush, swoony-stringed confection: the strings in the title are an intimate quartet; the arrangements uncurl slowly. Throughout, as Mark Everett rasps and strains, the mood is kept largely down-beat and unassuming. It’s not the cry for help that a tour with strings supposedly represents, so much as a heart crumpled, but always wanting to try something new.
Although a DVD was released with the album, I haven’t found a clip for I’m Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart, but this TV performance captures a similar mood.