September 24, 2008
Be warned, purists: Eli Young Band’s major-label debut is a textbook example of just how loosely country music has been defined by its modern commercial market. In true contemporary form, most everything about Jet Black & Jealous – from the omnipresent electric guitars to the (endearingly) emo-sounding title – suggests a significant and varied pop-rock influence, with little more than Mike Eli’s leading twang to mark the quartet as a country act. Factor in the group’s slick, hipster-cowboy appearance, and the comparisons to Lyric Street poster boys Rascal Flatts become all but inevitable.
But despite some significant concessions to convention, Eli & Co. distinguish themselves from the radio pack with their less-is-more delivery and a songwriting approach based in simple, uncontrived observation. Jet Black & Jealous traverses a wide spectrum of contemporary styles over its twelve tracks, but the set is united by a central, consistent narrative voice that manages to sound grounded in genuine experience, even as it sometimes ventures into overly familiar territory. It’s not the strongest set of songs, with some reaching for golden hooks and slightly missing the mark (“Radio Waves,” “Get in the Car and Drive”), and others riffing on uncreative or unexciting themes (“Always the Love Songs,” “Famous”). But even in their shortcomings, Eli Young Band comes across as an act that tells the truth – or at least tries.
The album kicks off with a revamped rendition of “When it Rains,” the band’s first Top 40 country hit and a highlight of their 2005 independent release, Level. Penned by guitarist and partial group-namesake James Young, the song is a stroke of melancholy genius: cold, terse, believable, hooky, even musically unorthodox (Young employs almost every chord in the song’s given key, a true rarity in country music). The extra polish applied to the piece in this Jet Black & Jealous incarnation may be off-putting to fans of the original recording – Eli’s vocal, especially, sounds noticeably thinner and tamer than before – but for the most part, the added production and harmonies only lend the number a bit more punch and momentum, making for a dazzling introduction to the set.
Alas, the brilliant leading example of “When it Rains” ends up casting a long shadow over the ensuing songs, which, for all their high points, never quite manage to match the comprehensive strength of that opening number. In reality, there is much to admire about some of the material on Jet Black & Jealous; it’s just the kind of album that must be picked apart individually in order for that material to make a fair case for itself.
In general, Eli Young Band is at their best when playing up their rock chops. They channel Radney Foster on the outlaw frenzy “Throw and Go,” then sugarcoat Tom Petty’s style on the title track, an ear-candy break-up ditty whose titular phrase is presumably just there to sound cool, as it’s never actually explained. Then there’s “Enough is Enough,” a frank appraisal of a withering relationship that finds Eli lamenting, “I can’t lean on you, ’cause I fall right over.” A slow-burning shuffle, it’s the closest sonic relative to “When it Rains” that the group has included here, and another indication that that that particular style suits them very well.
Less winning, however, are their stabs at patented contemporary country themes. They try on Kenny Chesney’s classic rock nostalgia (see “I Go Back,”) and easy-as-that life philosophies (see “Don’t Blink”) in “Always the Love Songs” and “Mystery in the Making,” respectively, then rewrite Sugarland’s “Tennessee” as “Radio Waves,” sacrificing some of the original’s catchiness and quirky charm in the process. They do manage to beat the Flatts boys at their own melodramatic game on the fun “Get in the Car and Drive,” but then over-do that, too, on the inane “How Should I Know” and “Guinevere.”
But to the group’s credit, they expound on their recycled cliches in a manner nuanced and conversational enough to make the stories themselves come across as real, and their delivery remains spot-on through the rough patches. In addition to the appreciable lack of a truly bombastic moment anywhere in the set, Eli is endowed with an Everyman tone that sounds convicted no matter what the musical setting, and the group’s harmony-driven sound is pleasant enough to make even the lacking material sound halfway-decent.
So all in all, it’s a mixed showcase of the act. On one hand we have the twangin’ alt-rockers who produce mature numbers like “Enough is Enough”; on the other, we have yet another country boy band just doing their darndest to break into a radio format that favors indiscriminately catchy tunes like “Always the Love Songs.” And then, somewhere perfectly in the middle, we have the Texan phenoms of “When it Rains” fame, the rare act who produces music that is both artistically fulfilled and commercially attractive. Eli Young Band will likely spend the rest of their career trying to achieve that hallowed middle ground, and it will be interesting to see whether they can manage to do so on future releases – but for the moment, we have Jet Black & Jealous: the sound of a promising young act weighing its options.