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Ball in the House

Love Drug (1998)

3.4

November 25, 1998

Tuning / Blend 3.8
Energy / Intensity 3.6
Innovation / Creativity 3.4
Soloists 3.8
Sound / Production 3.2
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Fire 3.8
2 Love Drug 3.4
3 Summer of '69 3.2
4 Crawlin' 2.8
5 Are You From Mars? 3.2
6 I'll Be There 4.2
7 Karma Chameleon 3.0
8 Overman 3.4
9 So Lonely 4.0
10 Unchained Melody 4.2

Recorded 1997 – 1998
Total time: 42:34, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Fire 3
2 Love Drug 2
3 Summer of '69 3
4 Crawlin' 1
5 Are You From Mars? 3
6 I'll Be There 4
7 Karma Chameleon 1
8 Overman 3
9 So Lonely 4
10 Unchained Melody 3

You've probably already noticed that a lot of the original songs written by a cappella groups simply aren't that good. Sure, the average (or even below average) a cappella group can SING better than the Back Street Boys, but when it comes to song writing skills, they often aren't that much better off. That's one good thing you can say about Ball in the House: at least they try to write something better than the average disposable a cappella song.

A lot original tunes tend to be trite: love is good, wars are bad, feed the world, Jesus saves. Mercifully, there are no trite platitudes on Love Drug. Another pitfall that Ball in the House successfully avoids is vacuous, cookie cutter pop songs. You know the kind of song I'm talking about here: standard lyrics, standard groove, standard song structure. None of the originals on Love Drug fall into this trap either.

Despite successfully avoiding common flaws, the Ball in the House original songs are still lacking. But at least whatever problems the songs have are ORIGINAL problems! Take the title track for example. Almost every line of the song ends with the words "going crazy". The steady groove of the song is nice (the VP is pretty good throughout the album) but it only tends to underline the monotony caused by having almost every line of the song end with the words "going crazy". Having a hookless chorus that is one line long is also not a good idea when you need something to break up the repetition of having almost every line of the song end with the words "going crazy". You get the picture.

Speaking of choruses in need of a hook, the album's next original song is Crawlin'. Here the chorus sort of shifts up to higher register and lingers there for a while; there's no sense of motion, no melody to move the song forward. Ball in the House gets point for using the word "supplication" in a song lyric but loses those points (and then some) with lines like "crawlin' on my knees and hands and arms and eyes..." Eyes? Eyes??? Oh well, at least you can't say that almost every line of the song ends with the words "going crazy". The lyrics get better on Are you From Mars?. In fact there's actually some cute ones. It's a very Blenders-esq performance of a Blenders-esq song.

Overman, the CDs final original song is the album's most ambitious bit of writing. It chucks the standard three verses, three choruses song structure out the window and instead serves up a long stream of word play based on the word "over". Little fragments of the lyrics are great, but when you put them together, the portrait of Overman loses focus. It's all about the word play, not what the words are getting at. In the end, Overman overdone. The six covers range from good to pretty bad. Karma Chameleon has a cool, almost hardcore rap section at the end, but until then it plays up the goofy rhythm of the song and slows it down so that it sucks the life out of the great melody lines. On the plus side, I'll Be There is very serviceable and So Lonely is a great song to cover (even though the abrupt fade out cheats the listener of a the big finish that the song deserves).


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Fire 4
2 Love Drug 4
3 Summer of '69 3
4 Crawlin' 3
5 Are You From Mars? 3
6 I'll Be There 5
7 Karma Chameleon 4
8 Overman 3
9 So Lonely 4
10 Unchained Melody 5

I wish that Love Drug had a little more oomph. From what I've seen of Ball in the House, they can create a full sound and a strong groove, both of which are only hinted at on their CD. My main complaint about this album is that I never feel like I'm getting enough of their sound, and when I turn up the volume, I just get a louder version of not enough sound. Since I don't have any hands-on experience with producing a cappella recordings, I don't know exactly what to attribute it to, except maybe that they bring the soloists too far out front. All I can say, is a lot of the time, the background chords sound kind of weak to me, and I think it has more to do with the production than the sound the group is capable of producing.

Beyond that general complaint, there are a lot of cool things going on on this CD, as well as a few less successful things. Ball in the House includes four originals on Love Drug, the most engaging and memorable of which is the title track. The success of this track is in no small part aided by soloist Dave Guisti, who basically kicks ass all over this album. The reason this original song stands better on its own than any of the others, I think, is because of its relative simplicity. Although each of the others has parts that are musically interesting, they tend to get bogged down with lyrics that try a little too hard to be clever and verbose, and end up coming off a little bit clumsy. The most musically ambitious of the original tracks is Overman, but the lyrics and some of the transitions began to lose me. There are only so many words beginning with "over-" (overpopulation, overindulgence, overwrought, overachieve, etc.) that I can hear before I hit mental overload.

As for the covers that make up the rest of the CD, they range from average to nearly definitive. Summer of '69 doesn't do much for me at all, and the mention of "my first real six-string" makes me wonder how appropriate an a cappella song it is anyway. Fire and So Lonely are good straight-ahead rockers, with soloist Ryan Behling doing a dead-on Sting on the latter. Karma Chameleon gets a festive reggae retread, though this is one of the tracks where I feel like the background could be a little more prominent. There's a nifty little breakdown near the end, but the song's conclusion is overly abrupt.

The two tracks that stand out most for me happen to be the most traditional and commonly-covered songs on the album - I'll Be There and Unchained Melody. Both get an injection of cool from Dave, who takes both these solos and makes them his own, while complementing the background arrangements (making me notice the lack of arranging credits in the liner notes). I'll Be There builds to the biggest sound on the album, and the initial arpeggiation in Unchained Melody is just right for the song. Overall, Ball in the House shows a fair degree of versatility on Love Drug — what they need to do now is get their recording a little bit closer to their live sound, and think about whether they want their originals to be songs that will make the listener go "huh?" or something that listeners are likely to find themselves humming for the rest of the day.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Fire 4
2 Love Drug 3
3 Summer of '69 2
4 Crawlin' 3
5 Are You From Mars? 3
6 I'll Be There 4
7 Karma Chameleon 3
8 Overman 3
9 So Lonely 5
10 Unchained Melody 5

Ball in the House is one of the hot groups to come out of Boston, with a lot of good word of mouth and a finalist placing in this past year's Harmony Sweepstakes to their credit. Among it's membership at the time of this album, to my knowledge, are two former members of U. of Penn's Pennsylvania Six-5000 (including the man responsible for their 1996 CARAS runner-up New Age Girl arrangement.) as well as one of the three arrangers attached to the CASA custom arranging service.

What I have to wonder, with all that arranging "juice" attached to this album project, why many of the cover arrangements fall short of the mark? Their arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's Fire and their Unchained Melody works fairly well, and their cover of the Police's So Lonely has one of the more convincing Sting imitations, which helps drive the song...but I was severely underwhelmed by their Summer of '69, both in terms of arrangement and soloist. What I have to ask is, since it's the same soloist on '69 and So Lonely, how that soloist can wail convincingly on the Police tune but sound like your average wimp tenor on the Bryan Adams tune? And although I give them credit on trying a stylistic switch on Karma Chameleon, it doesn't quite mesh.

Their originals, of which there are four, are.....ok. Only one is truly up-tempo, the rest settle into a slow groove. As much as I respect a group that does originals, none of them here really caught me. They're...average. Nothing really horrifically bad or cheesy, but nothing that really grabs a hook for me. =) And there were some fairly weird tuning things going on during Are You From Mars that were distracting. In fact, their best tracks were the last two of the album...the Police tune and a solid arrangement of Unchained Melody that wouldn't sound out of place with any given doo-wop group.

Overall...this is a solid, but not incredibly impressive first effort. However, it is a first effort, and I wasn't overly excited about the first recordings of Rockapella I ever heard, or The Bobs, or Five O'Clock Shadow. Their next album could blow me away. But this one was..... nice. And that's about all I have to say about it.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Fire 5
2 Love Drug 5
3 Summer of '69 5
4 Crawlin' 4
5 Are You From Mars? 4
6 I'll Be There 5
7 Karma Chameleon 5
8 Overman 5
9 So Lonely 5
10 Unchained Melody 5

If only all debut CDs could be this good. First, kudos to Jon for unbelievable percussion. They're funky lines, smooth, and no song would be complete without them. I found myself trying to emulate his sounds, only to discover that I was spraying my computer screen with spit. (Not really...but what a sad attempt.) If you're female, you'll find yourself lovesick for BITH's Love Drug. You're not going to scream like the pre-pubescent teenagers do for Hanson but, pardon the horrible pun, you'll get addicted. If you're male, you'll find yourself jealous of the guys.

Kudos to the other Jon, RARB's Jonathan Minkoff, for a great, crisp recording. Great balance between and within the tracks. Even though it is a bit "tin-like" at times, I feel it's attributed to the sound the group was trying to achieve.

With six covers and four originals, the end of the CD left me wanting more. All of the originals are a bit slower, and I thought Are You From Mars? was a bit long, but there is a lot of potential for some composers in this group as well. A few chords are a bit unsettled on some tracks (#5, #8) but it doesn't warrant anything less than slight imperfections that all groups have. Karma Chameleon, a song I consider flagrantly overdone, is a refreshing, innovative arrangement and finds its niche on the album. Wait until you hear the percussion breakdown in the song. All arrangements are new, original, and use a good balance of sung chords and solo instruments. (I.E.- Listen to the guitar solo on Fire. Excellent, even with the use of reverb for a sharper effect.)

BUY THIS CD. You have no excuse not to. It's a blatant statement, but once you've got it, you'll understand why.


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Fire 3
2 Love Drug 3
3 Summer of '69 3
4 Crawlin' 3
5 Are You From Mars? 3
6 I'll Be There 3
7 Karma Chameleon 2
8 Overman 3
9 So Lonely 2
10 Unchained Melody 3

Six guys from out East, Ball in the House shoots for a dynamism to their sound which they unfortunately only sometimes achieve. Song choice is admirably varied (although mitigated by the use of the word "baby" on, I think, every track), but similar-seeming arrangements mute whatever interpretive range the group could have expressed. Indeed, the most obvious lack to this album might derive from the nature of the arrangements: each song has an overly thin sound, certainly too thin for a group of six (normally five singing and one percussing). In particular, the middle voices often pass all-but undetectably behind a fuzzy bass and an always-earnest lead. Whether this derives from the arrangements or from the studio work is difficult to tell. Whatever the reason, the songs sound bare.

This holds true even for those originals included on the album, which vary greatly in quality. Perhaps the greatest problem here is with the lyrics, which seem overly contrived and falsely poetic.

On the plus side, tuning is generally quite good; some high notes are only barely squeaked by, and the bass sometimes scrapes an uncomfortable bottom. Rhythm is sometimes an issue, with percussion blandly not doing its duty. A more varied set of percussion sounds could help make each song all the more exciting. This is compounded by each song seeming to be one verse, one chorus or (sometimes) minutes too long; each is sung long past its last point of interest.

This group has obvious talent, strong voices and clear enjoyment of singing. This album, unfortunately, is only run-of-the-mill.


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Ordering Information

CDs can be ordered through their web page at www.ballinthehouse.com.

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