Monday, March 10, 2014

album review: '10,000 towns' by the eli young band

So here's one of the frustrating things about mainstream country artists: since so many of them have songs written by other songwriters entirely, it can distort your mental picture of an act's identity. That tends to be a complaint at the root of a lot of critics' issues with bro-country: when so many of the songwriters come from the same camp and write for many different artists, acts that should have a distinctive voice begin to blur together.

But rarely has there been a case where my view of an act has been so sharply divided as when I'm talking about the Eli Young Band. They were around in the country underground as early as the mid-2000s, but they exploded into mainstream popularity in 2011 with Life At Best. And considering I was only following country radio and less distinctive albums around that period, I was perplexed that the Eli Young Band could have such a variance in quality, as 'Even If It Breaks Your Heart' was close to one of my favourite hit songs of 2012 and 'Crazy Girl' would have had a shot at being one of the worst. 

So in preparation for this review, I went back and listened through Life At Best, and surprise surprise, both songs were written by different songwriters - and neither were members of the Eli Young Band. 'Crazy Girl' was written by Lee Brice, one of the most meat-headed and devoid-of-insight songwriters working in bro-country right now, while 'Even If It Breaks Your Heart' was written by Eric Paslay, who I reviewed a month or so back and whose debut album is only getting better every time I listen to it. But even with that, I didn't have a picture of how the Eli Young Band represented themselves, so I went deeper and...

Well, they aren't bad, but they didn't really stand out much for me. I liked the heavier guitars, the good lyrical flow, and the melancholy elements that were well-characterized and smartly delivered, but between the sloppy and often flat production and the strange dreariness that bogged down and homogenized parts of the album, I wouldn't call it a great record. And thus, I didn't know what to expect when I took a look at their newest album 10,000 Towns. They had about the same number of songwriting credits, but initial buzz suggested it had a bit of a lighter tone. So, how did it go?

Uhh... well, it's okay, but it's not great. If Life At Best presented the Eli Young Band as a serviceable country music act that lies closer to the harder edges of the pop country scene, 10,000 Towns cements that reputation. In other words, it's mostly good but not great and not exactly an album that'll stick around for very long. And while there are promising signs on this album that make this record a little easier to listen through than their last one, none of them are developed enough to give this record some real power.

Let's start with the instrumentation where at first glimpse, you might think things have made a turn for the better. The production is more expansive and textured, both electric and acoustic guitars have more texture, there are more solos, and generally the lighter, more upbeat tone is a good fit for the harmony-rich backing vocals, most of which sound quite cohesive. But it didn't take long to notice that most of that instrumental texture just drops out entirely in the chorus, which sounds over-produced and obscures the instrumental melodies. And what gets worse is that if you listen for the melody lines, they aren't that interesting, mostly sticking to conventional progressions that don't have a lot of memorability or staying power. There are moments that get interesting - hints of accordion on 'Your Last Broken Heart' and 'A Lot Like Love', the piano line in 'What Does', and the harder edges in 'Revelations' - but these are only fleeting glimpses at what could have been a more diverse and interesting album. The one good thing I can say about the production is that feels a lot more cohesive and well-structured than the last album, even to the point where the electronic elements, though noticeable, do blend subtly into the mix.

Now let me stress that there's nothing wrong with writing simple instrumentation, provided you can make it up in other areas. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of hope for making it up the vocals, which takes us to Mike Eli. He reminds me a lot of Billy Currington with his hangdog roughness to his voice, which can be emotionally effective if he's trying and pushing himself. The sad problem is that on most of this album, he doesn't seem to be doing so, and since he doesn't exactly have killer stage presence or charisma, it makes some songs come across as really bland. The absolute worst of the bunch is the title track, which takes a very basic bro-country formula and Mike Eli does nothing to redeem it with even the slightest genuine investment. On the other hand, if he has some more emotionally gripping material, he can make it work, and the better songs on this album work in this vein.

So, as always, it comes back to the songwriting - and like with the last album, we've got a mixed bag. I already mentioned the title track, but on the same low rung is 'Revelations', a song that squanders a good hard edge and a decent vocal performance with some truly obnoxious lyrics about catching a fiancee cheating and thanking God he dodged that bullet - classy, dude. Where this album does score points, though, is when it goes for real sincerity - as much as the clumsy double rhyme (very out-of-character for the Eli Young Band, who are normally better technical songwriters) in 'Your Last Broken Heart' annoys me, the lyrics do come across as heartfelt. Hell, even the lead single 'Drunk Last Night' manages pretty well in that regard despite some clumsiness and unnecessary defensiveness, capturing the hungover apologies that come from calling an ex and then having to explain himself. 

But like always, when the band goes for nuance, they can really deliver. The best song on this album by a mile is 'Who Does', a song about a failing marriage that is just heartbreaking to listen through as it shows how both tried their best to save things but it just didn't work. But not far behind is 'A Lot Like Love', a song where the narrator is reminiscing on a past relationship he thought was love but he walked away from it because of his ego and bad decisions. And what I like about the song is that it doesn't give him a straight answer - it might have been love, but it might not have, with the drama coming with the uncertainty and the questions he'll never be able to ask now. That's a mature and kind of risky direction to take, and I liked that.

Overall, 10,000 Towns by the Eli Young Band is okay. Decent, agreeable, an album that has a few good tracks, a few bad ones, and a whole lot of passable in between. In terms of mainstream country music, the best adjective I could use to describe the Eli Young Band is consistent, and while I might wish that Mike Eli pushed himself a little harder, the lyrics were a little more dynamic, the compositions were a little more interesting, and the production gave those guitars some more meat and prominence, I can't exactly fault an album that manages to roughly succeed in its goals, if not excel. So I'm giving this album a 6/10 and a moderate recommendation. If you're a fan of the Eli Young Band, it's worth a few listens - otherwise, only if you find agreeable to be enough.

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