By David Martin
Album: I’m Only Dreaming
In Brief: While Stacy and Chauntelle’s departure is a pretty serious drawback here, Sherri does an admirable job of keeping the Eisley sound her fans know and love intact, while also experimenting with new sounds here and there. This works better than expected, aside from a few maddeningly generic songs that probably would have been left out had her sisters been around to contribute their own material.
Eisley didn’t invent the “dreamy indie pop with sweet sibling harmonies” genre. I’m sure it had already been done to death in the 90s, well before Eisley’s mainstream debut Room Noises in the mid-2000s. But that was the record that really codified the genre for me. They made quite a dreamscape with rather simple ingredients on that record, and though their overall sound and style threatened to grow stale just a few albums later, they managed a career reconnaissance in 2013 with Currents, probably the record that best balances their crowd-pleasing, vocally stacked pop melodies with a few more experimental and aggressive moments, and definitely a career highlight from where I stand. But having a band entirely composed of actual family members had its downside. Everyone in the band got along just fine as far as I can tell, but when the three sisters who fronted the band each got married, moved to different cities, and started families (as well as musical side projects), it became harder and harder to get the group physically together for the sake of making new music or touring. So the decision was made a few years back that Stacy King and Chauntelle D’Agostinowould depart the band, leaving Sherri DuPree-Bemis as the band’s lone full-time vocalist on the band’s new album, I’m Only Dreaming. Brother Weston DuPree contributes drums in the studio only and no longer tours with the band, leaving cousin Garron DuPree as the only other pre-existing band member who is still with them in both a studio and touring capacity.
If you were new to Eisley, you probably couldn’t tell the difference between the three sisters’ voices that easily, anyway, so this might not sound like that big of a deal in a day and age where a vocalist can easily multi-track herself in the studio and bring a backup singer or two on tour with her. But some of Eisley’s best songs featured a well-timed trade-off between Sherri and Stacy, or even overlapping verses where the two would be singing entirely different lyrics at the same time. It added a richness to their sound that reminded me it was the work of multiple creative minds. The adorably shy Chauntelle rarely sang lead, but it was a treat when she did. And with all due respect to Sherri, who has a fine voice that skirts the edge between dreamy and aggressive, and whose rhythm guitar work gave some of their songs a heaviness not heard in a lot of other sound-alike acts in the genre, the instrumental contributions of her sisters were important, too. With Stacy gone, there’s less emphasis on keyboards, and since Chauntelle was the lead guitarist, there’s not as much exciting riffing or intriguing chord progressions, etc. Superficially, a lot of I’m Only Dreamingsounds like classic Eisley, but when you dig into the details, there just isn’t as much complexity and interplay there.
Despite how much was stacked against this record in terms of my expectations for it, I’m Only Dreaming is still pretty good. I have such fond memories of my favorite Eisley albums that I tend to forget how much Combinations had to grow on me, or how much I still don’t really care for The Valley outside of a select few songs. This one catches on pretty easily, thanks to Sherri’s ability to balance the melancholy, self-doubting lyrics in some of her songs with the more secure, warm-hearted, lovely-dovey stuff. She’s been happily married for two albums now, and her husband Max Bemis (lead singer of Say Anything) even stops by to share lead vocals with her on a song, which I think is a first for Eisley – I can’t recall male vocals in any of their past work. Circa Survive singer Anthony Green also shows up for an unconventional duet later in the album, and perhaps it’s just my surprise at how well the fish-out-of-water appearance works out for him, but that turns out to be one of my favorite Eisley tracks of all time. A few tracks, including that one, branch into electronic territory that I can’t recall Eisley trying on for size in the past, and it works out pretty well. So there’s clearly still some fertile creative ground for the band to mine here, despite most of this record feeling like it could have been a solo or side project for Sherri while the “Eisley” name was put on hiatus, and some of the songwriting and composition veering into more generic pop/rock territory than I’d prefer. If a band’s going to continue under its established name after the departure of key members, I think it’s important for whoever’s left to make sure there’s some continuity to the band’s sound, and to be very careful that the experimentation feels like a natural extension of the band’s sound as the remaining members grow as artists, and not a radical shift that makes it feel like a completely different band. Eisley passes that test on this album, and while it’s not the type of record that’s likely to turn a lot of heads in the industry or win them a massive new fanbase, I do find a fair amount of solace in it as a longtime fan.
1. Always Wrong
With this track being my first taste of the “revised” Eisley, I have to admit that it took me a while to warm up to it. Past Eisley records began with a lyrical cold open that immediately put the moody, soaring vocals front and center and made the listener curious as to the story being told. Here, while Sherri’s reaches some wonderful, compelling highs throughout the song and I’d have to say it’s one of her best performances, it starts off with a simple drum beat and a rather ordinary lead guitar melody – not the kind of thing that jumps out at a listener expecting more than standard pop/rock fare. Sherri’s lyrics also seem more geared toward more down-to-earth relationship fare than usual. While she has some interesting turns of phrase here (“Dust from your hair/Small splinter from your back/Will keep my raging mind in check”), the overall sentiment of feeling like enough of a failure that you’re not sure why someone loves you, but doing everything in your power to make sure they keep loving you, seems pretty well-worn as far as songwriting topics are concerned. Her vocals sell it really well, but the band as a whole should really be doing something more distinctive here.
It’s interesting how fatalism and romanticism can often seem to go hand-in-hand. For all my misgivings about how Sherri may have traded in the fantastical language of some of her earlier work for more straightforward love song terminology, I have to admit she’s pretty good at walking that tightrope between lovey-dovey and utterly tragic. This song, with its mid-tempo drum and bass groove that makes darn good use of Weston and Garron, captures that essence of wanting to fight the insurmountable odds in order to be with someone. The sentiment is nothing new, of course, but the idea that it’s her own defeatist demons that she’s really trying to fight off puts at least a little bit of a unique spin on it.
3. A Song for the Birds
This song almost has a pop/punk sort of vibe to it. It would be way more on the “pop” side of that spectrum, of course, but there’s something about its see-sawing melody and its unrelenting upbeatness that sounds like the kind of thing one of the genre’s more optimistic bands like Relient K might come up with. This is the song where Max Bemis shows up to duet with his wife, and while I’m not sure the two voices really fit together (his is just gruff and “emo” enough to sound a bit odd with the cheery melody she’s given him to work with), it has a certain homespun charm to it that works in its favor. It’s one of the catchiest songs on the record, and it has some playful turns of phrase like “I hate to see you so low/So I will sing this solo” that make me assume they have to be self-aware about the inherent cheesiness of it all. Is this the sort of thing that really belongs on an Eisley record? I honestly don’t know. Despite that, it’s one of the best tracks on this particular record.
The cheesy lovefest continues with this more intimate, down-tempo song, whose defining characteristic is the drum programming that’s been shoved into the spotlight. It’s definitely something different for Eisley, but it actually contributes a lot to the romantic atmosphere of the song, as does the mellow guitar ambiance. Sherri almost destroys this carefully cultivated atmosphere for me with the first line of the song: “Sitting here on the front porch/Loving on you, loving on me.” I’m sorry, but I can’t help but cringe when people say they “love on” someone instead of just loving them. The meaning is the same, but the “on” seems to emphasize the physical aspect of two people being all over each other. It turns an otherwise positive sentiment into TMI in the listener’s mind. Anyway, I like where the song goes from there, imagining the world being lit up by the sparks created as the two lovebirds do their thing. I love the phrase “Sing like a thunderstorm” in the chorus. It’s a reminder of the ability to romanticize otherwise dark imagery that made me fall in love with Eisley in the first place. Once again, this is a song that wouldn’t fit very well on any of Eisley’s other records, but I enjoy it as a unique expression of the Eisley 2.0 we’re hearing here.
5. My Best Friend
The shoddy lyricism in this song is just painful. Within the very first verse, you get a grade-school rhyme scheme that pairs “door” with “floor”, “hair” with “care”, and “shy” with “high”. It doesn’t get much better from there, as the chorus – which tries to express some hesitance over fully loving a person and thank them for their patience as she worked out her emotional issues – puts emphasis on the word “the” in its main hook – “I wasn’t in THE right place.” It just grates on my ears when singers do that. There’s more to this song than my little nitpicks about basic rhymes and accenting the wrong syllables, I guess, but since it’s pretty standard mid-tempo pop/rock, I can’t really say anything strongly positive or negative about the music here. There’s a moment in the pre-chorus where it seems like it’s going to take a colorful melodic turn a la “Wicked Child” from Currents (which was chock full of them), but it quickly returns to safe harbor for a pedestrian chorus.
6. Rabbit Hole
Eisley’s had songs on their last few albums that feel like subtle responses to their critics. “The Valley” was probably about as angry as such responses got, while the prevailing tone in “The Night Comes” seemed to be “that’s OK that you don’t get what we’re trying to do; I love you anyway”. That mood seems to continue into this delicate acoustic song, which at first wins me over with the simple combination of finger-picked guitar chords and Sherri’s voice, but which starts to get repetitive when it fails to develop into anything more. In the old days, a song like “Just Like We Do” that used this recipe worked because it stacked up the vocals in the chorus, building to something subtle but beautiful. All by her lonesome, Sherri just doesn’t have the same effect on me, no matter how sympathetic her words may be: “So go, and berate us/
So go, underrate us/So go, and berate us/I love you.” It’s a shame, because as I look at the lyrics, there’s actually some vivid imagery in the verses: “With toasting hands/We’re circling the tangled vine/Of the morning glory/Sugar cake and apple wine.” They give the sense that this woman and her lover are 100% happy together, no matter how others looking in might criticize their happiness. That’s a good idea for a song. The performance is just too underplayed to really make it come alive.
7. Louder Than a Lion
The skittering beats at the beginning of this song are quite a departure… they have me expecting something more IDM-oriented. Then the rhythm guitar comes in, and it’s darker, chunkier, a little more urgent than I’m used to from Eisley. It’s an attention-grabbing way to open a song, and what’s beautiful about this is that it’s simultaneously brand new territory for Eisley, and warmly familiar due to the melancholy lyrics about singing a child to sleep when you yourself can’t sleep. According to Sherri, this song is meant as a “dark lullaby” to her children, and an attempt to deal with the anxiety disorder that keeps her up at night, finding comfort in the fact that she can at least watch them and sing to them. You can hear the parental devotion in this one without ever turning mushy, and I love how the fierce devotion and the brooding darkness of the song play against each other. I’m already in love with this song (I’ll admit that being a new parent helps, but I loved it even before that happened), and I still haven’t even mentioned the fact that this is where Anthony Green shows up. It took me a while to get used to his somewhat high-pitched and raspy voice when I first listened to Circa Survive. And this is definitely an out-of-genre experience for him. But I love how the hand-off to him works during the chorus – he brought a few of his own lyrics to the table, and they perfectly mirror the fragile yet fiercely protective mood that Sherri was going for. This is a song that stretches the horizons of both artists in fascinating ways.
8. You Are Mine
This is another song like “Always Wrong”, where I figured it was going to be rather generic on first listen, but it managed to impress more more than I had given it credit for. The shuffling mid-tempo beat leads you to expect an unassuming, mid-tempo love song, but you can tell it’s building up to something better as the typical “I can’t understand how you still love me”-type sentiments give way to starker honesty: “You’re my everything, my sun and moon, you make me swoon/Wake me up, talk too much, piss me off/But… you are mine.” That’s probably the edgiest lyric I’ve ever heard on an Eisley record, which is to say not very edgy at all, but I figure it’s the kind of thing only a person who’s been married for a while could write and still mean it in a loving way. It’s that kind of lived-in love where even though you know the other person’s irritating faults way more intimately than you’d ever want to, having seen that and knowing you still love them makes it feel like that love goes even deeper. It’s a hard thing to explain, but I get where she’s going with it. The chorus injects a little more aggression into the song as Sherri once again goes for the dramatic high notes and the guitars and drums get a lot heavier… not quite “Many Funerals” heavy, but it’s probably the most conventionally “rock” of any of the songs on this record. I’m not a big fan of her rhyming “baby” with “crazy” here, but it’s forgivable since the song is a standout otherwise.
9. When You Fall
At this point I’m getting a bit fatigued with the love songs that say a lot of the same things over and over. The easygoing pop melody is certainly one that sticks in my head, but once again we’re running into some rather generic songwriting pitfalls, once again starting with a lyrical turnoff in the very first verse: “Babe, you’ve got soul/Brains and beauty/You don’t know it at all.” I should probably save my complaint about how meaningless the phrase “got soul” has become for a review of the latest Robert Randolph & The Family Band record, but suffice to say, I’m tired of hearing this phrase with no evidence to back up that person’s soulfulness. She tries to magic it up by singing about how she’s fallen under a person’s spell, but her chorus ends on the clunker “Your eyes light up at songs I sing”, and there’s just no coming back from that awkward Yoda-ism. Other than occasionally finding myself humming the melody later on, there’s honestly nothing about this song that I can bring myself to care about for any positive reason.
The gentle harp plucking that opens this song gives me hope that the more delicate but intricate, “baroque pop” side of Eisley wasn’t completely lost when Stacy left the band. (You get to hear a lot more of it on Stacy’s current project, Sucré, but that’s another story.) This song pulls a pretty neat trick, opening with a calm, wintry atmosphere, and once again I have to give the boys some credit where it’s due, since Weston is very gently tapping on the cymbals to give it a crystalline sort of texture, and I can only assume Garron helped out with the arrangement here, considering that he was the one playing the dulcimer or whatever that exotic instrument was on the title track from “Combinations” all those years ago. I’d be quite happily to let this mood settle in for the entire duration of the song, but they pull off a slick change-up after the second verse, speeding up the tempo suddenly and bringing in moodier rock instrumentation. It seems abrupt at first, but after a few more listens, I realized they were hinting that this chorus would come in, during the break between the first two verses. It’s a clever misdirect that leads to an emotionally satisfying payoff. The lyrics are full of aching and loneliness, with two people feeling like they are a great distance apart despite sharing a home, perhaps having to confront that disconnect between the two of them as they’re snowed in for the winter. The imagery is rich and the music compliments it perfectly. This is definitely the emotional climax of the record.
11. Brightest Fire
Thematically, I can understand why this song was an important thought to end the album. The chorus of “A Song for the Birds” mentions a “brightest fire”, and the chorus of “Downfall” repeats the phrase “down down, down down”, which gets recontextualized in the much more easygoing chorus of this song. But I’m not ready to shift back to everyday pop/rock with nothing all that special going on in the instrumentation, and not a fast enough tempo to make it exciting, nor a slow enough tempo to make it dramatic. It’s honestly quite a run-of-the-mill ending. Eisley’s ended most of their past records on more gentle and/or playful songs that were standouts for doing something differently than how the rest of the album did it – “Trolleywood” was a simple singalong filled to the brim with childlike wonder, “If You’re Wondering” was a peaceful lullaby, and “Shelter” was a gorgeous, string-drenched last hurrah for the trio of vocalists, probably not knowing at the time that it’d be the last track on the last album they recorded together. This track just isn’t memorable in comparison to any of those. In all fairness, it’s way better than the abysmal “Ambulance”, as far as album closers go.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Always Wrong $1.25
A Song for the Birds $1.50
My Best Friend $0
Rabbit Hole $.50
Louder Than a Lion $2
You Are Mine $1.25
When You Fall $0
Brightest Fire $.25
Sherri DuPree-Bemis: Lead vocals, guitar
Garron DuPree: Bass, guitar
Weston DuPree: Drums (studio)
Remington DuPree: Drums (live)
Elle Puckett: Guitar
Jedidiah Lachmann: Keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: