Eli Young Band returns with their brand of Texas Country on Life At Best, the quartet’s fourth full-length studio album, and their first with the Republic Nashville label. Based in Denton, Texas, EYB builds on the loose country/rock vibe of 2008’s Jet Black & Jealous with fourteen songs highlighted by Tom Petty-esque grooves, insightful lyrics and the comfortable ease of a band that understands each other’s nuances.
A single acoustic guitar opens the record on the lead track “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” before singer Mike Eli’s fluid vocal enters to describe a young boy being helplessly wrapped up in music, from steel guitars to Memphis all the way to rock and roll. That line goes a long way to describe EYB’s sound as the band (made up of lead guitarist James Young, bassist Jon Jones and drummer Chris Thompson) breaks in on the chorus with a heartland rhythm section and ringing guitars a la Petty’s “American Girl.” The hard-hitting drums and locked electric/acoustic guitars of title track, “Life At Best,” show the band’s love for uptempo country/rock as they support the song’s message of joy and pain all being part of truly living. The group’s quick, rhythmic left turn through the pre-chorus works nicely to give the song additional depth while bassist Jon Jones’ smooth playing through the breakdown anchor the track before taking off again towards the song’s exciting climax.
On “Skeletons,” slightly distorted guitar notes ring through the verse as Mike’s vocal delivery sounds completely at ease admitting, Across my arm is that old ink stain/ God I wish I could erase that name/ Reminds me that I’m the one to blame. There’s a vulnerability to the song, but the confidence the band brings with James Young’s strong guitar solo and the track’s pounding chorus channel the song’s emotional honesty. The reverb-heavy “The Falling,” again shows all four members working together to match words and music. At the end of the chorus, Mike sings, It ain’t the fallin’ in love that’ll kill me, it’s the sudden stop, as guitars and bass drop out from underneath and the drifting pedal steel line falls over the sonic edge.
Vivid lyrics are one of the highlights of Life At Best. The traditional country-leaning “My Old Man’s Son,” with thoughtful fingerpicked acoustic guitars and Chris Thompson’s soft drums, features lines like, From the way I laugh to the way I hold a woman’s hand/ Everywhere I go, wherever I run/ I’ll be my old man’s son. And on the contemplative “War On A Desperate Man,” Mike elegantly sings, How can I win when the battle keeps changing? The phrasing and word selection conjure strong images and emotions showing EYB able to deliver compelling thoughts through both their lyrical and musical choices.
Throughout Life At Best, there’s a sense that the album is making the point that you can’t have joy without pain. The first single, “Crazy Girl,” strikes a line between retreating to reflect on a relationship and running away from it. “The Fight,” showing off EYB’s talent as pop songsmiths, delivers a message that the prize will be worth the hard work. On Life At Best, EYB demonstrates that their growth and dedication is paying off with an introspective album that never loses its edge.