Album review: Eli Young Band’s “10,000 Towns” plays it safe

Eli Young Band is capable of great things as it showed with 2012″s “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” which featured one of the stronger choruses to come out of Nashville in years, as well as with ACM”s 2012 song of the year winner, “Crazy Girl.”

The question is if the quartet, which releases “10,000 Towns, its third major label album, today, is content to keep hitting singles and doubles or if it will consistently swing for the fences and find material that matches lead singer Mike Eli”s vocal talents and the band”s overall abilities.  (Eli is joined by guitarist James Young, bassist Jon Jones and drummer Chris Thompson).

The answer is mixed. To its credit, Eli Young Band, though very capable of hooting and hollering with the best of them, hasn”t succumbed to the bro-country sound that is dominating Nashville right now.  It has tried to collect songs -they rely heavily on outside writers, although they co-wrote six of the songs here  – that provide a wider life picture than grabbing your best girl (who”s in the mandatory outfit of a short dress and boots) hopping in a truck, driving down a dirt road, and drinking as you bask in the glow of the truck”s high beams.

On “10,000 Towns,” there are glimmers of uniqueness, but overall, the songs are too generic to stand out in a way that will move the band to a new plateau. First single- and No. 1 hit-“Drunk Last Night” reflects on the regrets the morning after a night of spilling secrets while under the influence: “I swear it”s the last time every time,” Eli sings. Who hasn”t been there.

That universal appeal continues with the title track, which details a scenario playing out, as the song suggests, in 10,000 towns across the country involving a six pack, some kissing, a blonde-haired beauty and, of course, a main street.

Country music has two speeds: If you”re not embracing your small town, as in “10,000 Towns,” you”re running from it. On current single, the upbeat “Dust,” it”s the latter as a girl is blowing out of town with the windows down, radio on and she”s torn off her rear view mirror, figuratively.  

The best tracks on here are “What Does,” a tender, painful song about the shifting sands in the aftermath of a break-up when  both parties have given it their best effort; “A Lot Like Love,” a wistful look back at not realizing what you had when you had it, the swampy “Revelations,” and sweet benediction, “Prayer For The Road.” The band should trust its own instincts more since band members co-wrote  three of those four songs.

Maybe Eli Young Band is exactly at the level it is supposed to be: certainly successful by any measure, although never reaching above the middle rung. I don”t think so. I still think they can be more than that, but they”re going to need better material to get there.