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Private Eleanor in a Public Institution

April 24, 2007

The Walters Art Museum in Mount Vernon might be an odd setting for an indie rock show, but if any band could pull it off, it would be Private Eleanor. What began as frontman Austin Stahl’s solo project–named best singer-songwriter in 2003′s Best of Baltimore issue–has expanded to a quintet in recent years, but its music is still painstakingly hushed enough to not to upset the precious artwork nearby. They’re also pretty good, but then drummer Chris Merriam is an old friend and Stahl was once a City Paper production assistant, so we’ll admit to at least a little bias.

We’re not sure whether the show was well advertised or just got healthy walk-in traffic from curious museum visitors, but the crowd managed to fill up a good portion of the Walters’ 400-seat auditorium. The occasion was a release party for Sweethearting, Private Eleanor’s latest full-length, and its second as a full band. Though time will tell whether we like the new tunes as much as the old stuff, it’s easily the band’s best sounding album to date, recorded at the Silver Sonya and Inner Ear studios where so many classic (and much louder) Dischord releases were made. And while Sweethearting is stylistically more of the same, there are some new kinks in the band’s sound, like the jangly “Weeds,” with its 7/8 time signature and tasty high-hat patterns.

The band’s 10-song set was more or less evenly split between the new record and 2005′s No Straight Lines, leading off with that record’s up-tempo final track, “Forever’s Not A Word I Use” and ending with the new album’s closer and highlight, “This Year I’m Going To See The Sun.” Backing singer and percussionist Marian Glebes was, as always, a stangely pixie-ish presence, dancing with a beaming smile in sharp contrast to her four stoic male bandmates. Now that the previous album has had a couple years to gestate during the band’s live shows, the arrangements have changed in some subtle ways, the brooding “Bed of Nails” in particular benefiting from some added oomph in its soft-loud dynamics. Although an ideal setlist would’ve included the intense older cut “Photocopy of a Photocopy of a Photograph,” once frequently used to close out the band’s shows, the atmosphere and environment still managed to make this the perfect Private Eleanor show.