Possibly one of the most underrated bands in Country music, Eli Young Band return with their fourth major label album. Having had some success with previous songs like ‘Even if it Breaks Your Heart’, ‘Crazy Girl’ and ‘Drunk Last Night’ and various ACM Vocal Group of the Year nominations, it feels like ‘Fingerprints’ is something of a re-introduction of the band to the world of Country music, which just goes to show that a lot has happened in the genre since they released their last album in 2014. Known for their personal, heartfelt lyrics and catchy melodies, the Eli Young Band have surpassed themselves in all departments with ‘Fingerprints’, producing one of the most interesting commercial releases of the year so far, managing to capture everything that is good about radio friendly Country music without sacrificing authenticity or integrity in the process, a rare feat and one that should be applauded.
‘Fingerprints’ is chock full of radio friendly songs. Lead single ‘Saltwater Gospel’ is a prime example. A deeply spiritual song about finding redemption, not in a church or any other religious building, but in the ocean, washed clean of your sins and relieved of the problems of the real world. Such a heavyweight topic is balanced beautifully against a big, gang vocal sing-a-long chorus and a melody that is instantly hummable, that burrows its way into your head and refuses to leave. ‘Never Land’ and ‘A Heart Needs a Break’ continue in the same vein. The former has one of the strongest, sing-a-long choruses of the year whilst the latter, co-written by the band with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, is a typically clever play on words from them about love and about knowing that what you want and what you need are sometimes not one and the same thing. I defy you to listen to either song and not sing along. Big, big choruses and hooks that grab on and refuse to let go, this is FM Country radio at its strongest and most addictive.
Mid-album track, ‘Drive’, should be a single. It would dominate the airwaves for months with its slow, moody start which then gives way to a breakout chorus of immense proportions. An ‘everyman’ tale about teenage dreams, first cars and first love – it has that ‘double threat’ advantage of being something utterly relatable wrapped up in a gorgeous melodic package as does ‘Once’, another Josh Osborne co-written track that is structured in a similar way. A quieter, reflective start sees Mike Eli in contrite mood, lambasting himself for letting down the only girl he has ever loved. The chorus explodes in a shower of guitars and big vocals as he realises that there are ‘some mistakes a man can only make, once.’ The strongest song on the album, ‘Once’ is a live anthem in waiting and another big, big contender for future single release on an album jam packed with options.
The beauty of ‘Fingerprints’ is that it isn’t just a one trick pony full of radio singles and heartbreak songs. ‘Old Songs’, the first real ballad on the album, is a late night, blues infused Country bar room anthem about nostalgia. Eli sings about how music plays a pivotal role stimulating memories, feelings and emotions. It’s a heartfelt song that will resonate with any music fan who has seen more than their fair share of years. ‘God Love the Rain’, the penultimate track on the album, sees Eli in nostalgic mood again, reminiscing about being caught in a rainstorm with his first love. Sentimental lyrics and storm imagery drive the song forward but at no point do the band veer into mawkish territory, in the hands of a Michael Bolton or Celine Dion you know the mush will be laid on thick but the Eli Young Band stop short enough of the line to be able to deliver something emotional but not over the top. Canadian singer, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, adds her wonderful voice to the track, making it even more poignant and one of the strongest songs on the album and another clear candidate for radio release.
‘Fingerpints’ also has a couple of earthier, rockier songs on it, adding to the variation and effortless flow of the album. The title track comes in at song number 2. A big, drum driven song similar in lyrical content to ‘A Heart Needs a Break’, about how the things you enjoy in life aren’t necessarily good for you, destined to be popular live with its Def Leppard ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ drums, ‘Fingerprints’ sees the band at their rockiest whilst ‘Skin and Bones’ is a quieter, rootsy song that Mike Eli wrote for his wife. Simple and acoustically driven, its lyrics paint a vivid picture of the beauty of long term love. “She’s in my skin and bones, she’s grace and glory, she’s the backroads home, she’s a long story.”
What the Eli Young Band manage to do, with seemingly effortless grace, is combine the authenticity of real life stories with an ‘everyman’ type of charm that resonates across the generations. What they have to say isn’t confined to any single age group or demographic. Their tales are timeless and the harmonies strong. There is a believability in the lyrics, a gritty realism combined with a romantic vision and no song on ‘Fingerprints’ encapsulates that more than final track, ‘The Days I Feel Alone’. An up-tempo song reminiscent of Del Amitri’s 90’s classic, ‘Always the Last to Know’. A joyous romp of a song to the ears but listen closer to the lyrics and Mike Eli is singing about homesickness, about the conflicted life of a touring musician, spending so much time away from the people you love. What a skill, to be able to write a three minute Country rock song that makes you tap your feet and sing along whilst bearing your soul to all and sundry about what must be the worst aspect of the job. This, right there, is an open vein – Eli’s life laid bare – an apology to his family and an explanation to them and the fans about how he copes with it and what he does to get through on the days he feels alone. Genius. A rare and beautiful gift that only the best songwriters are able to do.
Quite clearly the Eli Young Band have been working their way slowly towards making this album. It’s an accomplished, mature, fun and classy piece of work. There are no tractors, tailgates or tan legs anywhere to be found on ‘Fingerprints’. Instead, what you have are two songwriters and a band at the height of their powers. Life has shown them enough good and bad for them to be able to channel those experiences into a set of diverse and interesting songs that have a lot to say about relationships, religion, age and love. All typical Country music tropes but what distinguishes them from other artists saying the same thing is that there is an honesty and integrity with the Eli Young Band that is rare to find. You know that they believe every word they say. No words are wasted or thrown into songs for the sake of a rhyme or a sound. This is real music, real Country music with a healthy dose of rock on the side and if there is any justice in the world ‘Fingerprints’ will see the band back at the top of the charts and back on the radar of the ACM’s come nomination season. Oh, and speaking personally, if there IS any justice in the world, the band will finally get over to the UK, whether at next year’s C2C Festival or as part of their own tour, and show us all over on this side of the pond, what we have been missing out on all these years!
Twitter : @rockjames