Review Summary: In turns graceful, strong, whimsical and delicate but can't quite figure out how to get it all in one.
In many ways Eisley's nature as a band composed entirely out of family members and hailing from a small town in Texas shines through in the interesting mix of indie/pop-rock/country they play and how self contained it is. Their sweeping vocal melodies and delicate harmonies suggest comparisons to the current wave of piano rock led by their former touring partners Coldplay and Snow Patrol but they have none of their forced grandiosity. On the other hand there's a definite pop-punk bent in their upbeat and guitar driven sound, similar to their other touring partners Taking Back Sunday and New Found Glory but they with a sensibility for atmosphere that suggests a maturity rarely found in a second album. Eisley manage to float serenely in their own little bubble and it's a relaxing one to step in and enjoy.
The focal point of Eisley's songs are the twin vocals of Sherri and Stacy DuPree and it's hard to overestimate the extent to which their voices dominate the mood of the album. Both specialise in soft, soaring tones which instantly create a soothing sound and though both are versatile enough to switch into stronger and more forthright singing when appropriate, there's always a hint of the ethereal which helps give the album a cohesiveness which might otherwise be lacking. This pops up even in the most direct of their songs such as the soaring choral tones in the otherwise brooding 'A Sight to Behold' and the intertwining vocals at the end of the straightfoward rocker 'Taking Back Control'. This is added to by the frequently whimsical lyrical content. While this album is far more focused on everyday life than their debut 'Room Noises' (which among other things contained references to 'horses growing out the lawn' and 'bats with butterfly wings') Eisley aren't averse to adding an eerie touch such as in Invasion (apparently inspired by the novel Invasion of the Bodysnatchers) where they croon 'go to sleep/this won't hurt a bit/shifting your shape to our shells' and the gloomy atmosphere of 'Many Funerals'. In fact fans may be a little disappointed about the relative lack of such visual metaphors compared to their previous album as several songs here fall prey to repetition of relatively shallow lines such as the refrain of 'go away/go away/and leave me on my own' on the aptly named 'Go Away'. While their undoubted vocal skills earn more leeway for repetiton than other bands, when we know that they can do much better it's disappointing to see such sparse imagination. What their new style does manage to convey is a sense of honesty and warmth, especially in the two middle songs 'I Could Be There For You' and 'Come Clean' both pleas for someone to let the author help.
Instrumentally 'Combinations' can't be faulted for breadth. While the use of a keyboard has always addeda little extra harmony, Eisley is hardly lacking in that regard. This time it sounds like Eisley have walked into an instrument shop and picked up anything they liked the look of and used them to make a fuller, more swirling sound. The title track is particularly notable, featuring a marxophone (no I don't know what it is either but Garron DuPree does apparently and he does a very good job with it) and a brass section as well as letting the piano take centre stage while the lullaby-like 'If You're Wondering' adds a xylophone and a tambourine and various other sounds pop up to add to the sweeping melodies throughout the album. However this breadth can't act as a replacement for depth of use of instruments and 'Combinations' lacks something here. While the guitar, bass and drums are perfectly competent they never really break out of their melodic comfort zone of gently swelling background to the vocals. Even on the darker and rockier songs, 'Taking Back Control' and 'A Sight to Behold' there's no real sense of edginess or anything that really makes the listener really concentrate on what they're doing. Instead the sweeter vocals dominate again and the songs just come off as faster and louder versions of the more delicate songs, not done badly but not really representing a great sonic shift. Only on the country influenced 'Ten Cent Blues' do the instruments break free into a prominent position as the bass and drums combine and dictate the pace into a slower more rolling sound before they drop off and the guitar gets to play some nice little patterns behind the vocals.
'Combinations' represents a half step for Eisley. Clearly there was a desire to move away from the more whimsical elements of their debut and try for a fully rounded album incorporating all their experiences, including marriage, love and death. However they haven't quite managed to adapt their core sound to their intent and it's led to some weak lyrical and instrumental elements amidst some very solid songs. Normally a young band has some interesting instrument elements but real difficulty in creating mood. Eisley have a perfectly judged sense of mood and atmosphere but sometimes their songs just glide past a little too gracefully without really engaging the senses. The entire album is a little too dreamlike, making for a pleasant experience but one which doesn't quite stand up if you examine the details too closely. However it's an exceptionally strong base for a young band to work from and when they finally do manage to meld it all into one whole it's going to be a stunning album.