Essential: "Taking Control"
Eisley already released one album and a handful of EPs, but in a way, "Combinations" is the band's first real record. Unlike on 2005's sparkling "Room Noises," there's no duplication of earlier songs, and with one self-produced exception, a single hand (soundtrack composer and former Oingo Boingan Richard Gibbs) guides the proceedings instead of a crazy-quilt lineup of superstar producers. "Combinations" is more cohesive as a result, even if it just barely falls short of the bar set by "Room Noises." Though singers Sherri and Stacy Dupree are still intoxicated by melody, Eisley is darker and more aggressive than ever before, with songs like "Many Funerals" and "A Sight to Behold" adding a harder edge to the soft, swaying dreaminess that has been the band's stock in trade. But the pieces were all present in earlier material; what's changed is simply the emphasis. There are other, subtler indications of advancement, however, in the lilting warmth of "Ten Cent Blues" and minor-key gorgeousness of "I Could Be There for You," whose cymbal-avoiding drum pattern and unsettling atmosphere of slowly blossoming serenity sound as though Eisley discovered "Hounds of Love" since the last album. For a sophomore effort, "Combinations" makes for yet another strong debut. [Marc Hirsh]