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Ball in the House

Granite Ave. (2007)


March 16, 2008

Tuning / Blend 5.0
Energy / Intensity 4.3
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 4.0
1 Come Back To Me 4.0
2 Get It Together 4.3
3 Crawlin Out From Under 4.0
4 Trust Me 4.3
5 Your Love 4.0
6 Addicted 4.0
7 What More Do You Need 4.0
8 Anyway 3.7
9 Set The Mood 4.0
10 Superstition 3.3
11 Heavy On My Mind 4.0
12 Let You Lead 4.0

Recorded 2005 – 2006
Total time: 47:24, 12 songs

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
1 Come Back To Me 5
2 Get It Together 5
3 Crawlin Out From Under 5
4 Trust Me 5
5 Your Love 5
6 Addicted 5
7 What More Do You Need 5
8 Anyway 5
9 Set The Mood 5
10 Superstition 5
11 Heavy On My Mind 5
12 Let You Lead 5

Ball In The House writes great club music. I'd love to hear this disc in the background when I'm out on the town, friends and bubbly nearby around a dark, comfy corner table. Pretty fabulous stuff for an a cappella band, particularly one that splits its time between pop and praise.

Once again, the Boston band has assembled an album of mostly original music in very professional fashion. The beats are groovy and consistent, the tuning impeccable. And the disc hangs together, so the love songs transition from romantic to religious without much of a fuss. Ball In The House may not be, strictly speaking, an inspirational group, but this disc is exactly what a contemporary Christian rock band ought to sound like. The spiritual songs (Let You Lead, Your Love, Heavy On My Mind) are in the same musical vein as their secular counterparts, and the overall tone is welcoming and inclusive. I didn't feel pressured to praise the Lord, I felt welcome to join in the party.

Granite Ave. has a coherent overall sound, but thankfully the songs don't all sound alike. There are the upbeat tunes, like the fun and funk-tinged Come Back To Me or catchy Crawlin Out From Under. Then there are the slow tunes, like the slightly sappy Heavy On My Mind, and the straight up boy band numbers like Trust Me. The solos rotate through, which means Aaron Loveland's distinctive power tenor can sing out without dominating the entire disc. I still think he'd be great in a country band, and he gets a little over the top sometimes (see What More Do You Need) but overall I think the band strikes a good balance.

It's a nice disc of nice music. Not really the sort of thing I listen to at home, but I'd dig it out on the town. You probably would too.

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
1 Come Back To Me 3
2 Get It Together 4
3 Crawlin Out From Under 3
4 Trust Me 4
5 Your Love 4
6 Addicted 3
7 What More Do You Need 3
8 Anyway 3
9 Set The Mood 3
10 Superstition 3
11 Heavy On My Mind 4
12 Let You Lead 4

Granite Ave. is a more relaxed, simpler Ball in the House. The album is more R&B than saccharine pop. Coherent ensemble singing replaces much of the lyrics repetition and tenor wailing of Think About It. But the honest truth is that BitH still writes mediocre songs, many of which feature strange musical moments and disagreeable lyrics. I have great respect for any group that's committed to writing originals, but much of Granite Ave. is forgettable, with poorly defined melodies, simplistic backgrounds, and no catchy hooks.

It's not the style or technique that's weak, it's the content. Ball in the House can sing in pitch and time, with energy, emotion, blend, balance, and style. Yet BitH insists on its commitment to R&B-infused, boy band hip-pop, a genre so tired it's got just one man running the life support apparatus (and merci beaucoup to you, Monsieur Timberlake).

"All that you want is all that I'll do, whatever you need to get you through. Turn down the lights, let's try something new. I'll make it perfect, whatever you choose, 'cuz all I need is you to set the mood." I mean, these guys aren't as young as they used to be and, frankly, imagining them performing for teens in this creepy, "I'm-going-to-seduce-you" style, no doubt accompanied by slick choreo, makes me raise an eyebrow.

But if the lyrics don't getcha', many songs have moments that are just flat-out weird, even for hip pop. Crawlin Out From Under has an "all ya needed was the money" reference to the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money", and this bit has no apparent relation to the earlier music of the song. Trust Me pans the words "doin' it" left and right in the intro, heavy on delay and speakerphone equalization-head scratching in a song that's otherwise cool, reflective and awash with atmospheric "ahh"s. A beautifully voiced and pleasantly nasal baritone croons out Your Love, a laid back ballad, but the bass line is inexplicably panned hard left throughout the first verse and the choruses are over the top: "your love love gimme your love ya gotta love love lah dah dee ah dah". Superstition is over sung, as are most of the songs featuring this over the top soloist, and he rips a solo falsetto line that sounds like someone skinning Little Richard. Some of the liberties he takes with the melody nearing the end of the song sound just wrong. The group is forcing it.

I burst out laughing at the 180 degree change in lyrical message from What More Do You Need to the next track, Anyway. We move from over dramatic "What more do you need from me?" and "I wish I knew what it would taaake, to make ya wanna stayyyy, make this better for yooo...I wantcha here...Ooo!" to a melancholy "I wish that we could just go on, pretending to be something we're not. I can't seem to give up on everything we've got, but you, I think you're already gone. I'm doin' the best that I can do" and "Soon what's missing will be you".

Songs that manage to avoid odd moments stand up pretty well. Aside from all the "doin' it" in Trust Me, this is kind of a cool song, reflective during moments of stripped down silence, between all the washy "ah"s. Heavy On My Mind is a winner. The song is downtempo, tender, nicely blended on "doo", and very listenable. The oversinging soloist on Let You Lead is a turnoff for this album, yet parts of this song are pretty likeable. The song opens from a repetitive verse into a funky, head bobbing chorus. The bridge is a minimalist call and response between soloist and background, with a train horn "I'll follow" and clapping section.

What to do with Granite Ave.? The album is much more listenable than Think About It, and those, like me, who have strong, visceral reactions to teen love-pop should find something to chew on this time around. Still, Ball in the House would benefit from a lyrics coach, someone to act as a little black box that would edit out strange ideas and silly lyrics.

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
1 Come Back To Me 4
2 Get It Together 4
3 Crawlin Out From Under 4
4 Trust Me 4
5 Your Love 3
6 Addicted 4
7 What More Do You Need 4
8 Anyway 3
9 Set The Mood 4
10 Superstition 2
11 Heavy On My Mind 3
12 Let You Lead 3

Ball in the House has released a nearly all-original album called Granite Ave.. It sounds very good.

Four core artistic subjects necessitate some discussion: production, performance, sound design, and songwriting.

One of the most cohesive vocal albums I have heard, Granite Ave. is shiny, loud, accessible, and ready for the masses. Editing and tuning are nearly impeccable; the only audible tuning artifacts I hear appear (very subtly) on What More Do You Need. Basically, the mixing is as professional as it gets. I could easily imagine many of the same effects and placement applied to an American Idol's album. (Which may or may not be a good thing, as the production style verges on too juvenile for this group.)

The members of Ball in the House posses some solid vocal talent, and their album showcases a great deal of competent studio performance. The leads are adept and do the right things, and the backs accomplish what is asked of them. I love the dark "whoa, whoa, whoa" part on the opening track, but the heavy, synchronized group vibrato annoys me, especially on Crawlin Out From Under.

Aaron's voice is unique, but his throatiness becomes a little abrasive after a while, and many of his stylings, like the emphasized breathing and the growling, seem manufactured. In Let You Lead, the opening is sung in a "girl, come back to me, because listen to how sexy my voice is" style, complete with the fellated microphone. That style can be very impressive and effective for certain lyrical themes, but generally not for themes involving God.

In general, the leads sound as if they were performed to be impressive, which they indeed are, but not to be heartfelt.

Production and performance both factor heavily into sound design. On Granite Ave., the mixing adds to it, and the performances are a mixed bag. The rhythm section — hard-hitting, thick bass and skillful, well-treated percussion — provide a vital musical foundation and sonic layer, and deserve much of the credit for the album's cohesiveness. What More Do You Need boasts maybe the coolest vocal snare ever.

While the production and rhythm section seem to be right where they need to be, BitH's craft never quite comes together to create something transcendent. Addicted and Set The Mood come the closest, but I have a tough time getting over some (admittedly nitpicky) issues in both. Some super straight backing vocals in the former (especially the terminal "tih" sounds on the words "can't" and "let" in the chorus) irk me every time. In Set The Mood, BitH sets up a really nice vibe over the first couple minutes, but then a really close and dry "na na na" part cuts through and destroys it.

This album is designed for mass consumption. The mixes focus on the leads and on the rhythm section, a formula that has worked well for bands over the last few decades. It doesn't quite cut it for me, though. The ambition in the backgrounds is just lacking, in comparison to the vocal (see Hookslide), syllabic (see The House Jacks), or rhythmic (see Naturally Seven) arrangement demands other professional groups impose on themselves. Most of the Granite Ave. arrangements rely too heavily on generic syllables and echoed lyrics. Several tracks also exhibit some poor arranging choices. During Anyway, an awkward "na, na, no" line comes off very cheesy, and in Heavy On My Mind, the plodding "doo" quarter notes undermine the power of the message. (It can work on a piano, but generally not in vocal music.) A few exceptions: Set The Mood, with its creative and well-executed background lines, Trust Me, with some interesting staccato parts in the bridge, and Addicted, with some cool arpeggios toward the end.

Ball in the House attempts to take Stevie Wonder's Superstition in a new direction, but they stop short, and the results are tragic. Gimmicky and awkward, the arrangement falls shy of mediocre, and the lead, while the requisite range and agility are present, is just inappropriate. This track should have been website-only.

Did I mention that the whole album, save the one unfortunate track, is original? On that count, three cheers for Ball in the House. To create such a sonically cohesive album with such a defined style is an accomplishment few vocal bands can claim. This group has come a long way in establishing a brand for themselves. And while I certainly applaud them for this achievement, I feel justified in asking for more from a group of such talent and notoriety. Of the eleven original tracks, nine of them deal with love and relationships, while the final two deal with loss and faith, respectively. Ball in the House really ought to consider working in some more varied and worldly themes.

Second, every song follows a standard pop structure — ABABCBB, or something close to it. The lack of real narratives gives the album a static emotional feel. The lack of sonic expansion or contraction makes it hard to add any weight to the lyrics. Many of the songs are too long.

Granite Ave. is not the sort of album you would sit down and listen to actively. But if you're looking for something to pop in your car stereo or to load onto your iPod, then here is a shiny, professional, and accessible product for you.

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