THE WTF REVIEW: Ball Park Music – Happiness And Surrounding Suburbs (Stop Start/EMI)
By Matt O’Neill
I used to despise Ball Park Music.
Well, I don’t know if despise is the appropriate term. I never really gave them a chance. I heard their ubiquitous ‘iFly’ single and then promptly wrote them off. It was saccharine, it was formulaic, it was so disgustingly contemporary. I remember discussing the band with a friend around the time of its release and both of us essentially decrying them as opportunists – a collective of talented musicians who had decided to perform indie-rock so as to capitalise on that genre’s current popularity.
(Yes, I’m aware this is a stupid opinion. This review will feature many of them. I recommend making a drinking game out of it.)
I’ve since changed my mind. I’m not sure what initially prompted me to re-evaluate the band. I do remember finally catching them live and being grudgingly astounded by their musicianship and, more importantly, the bullshit ridiculous charisma of their frontman Sam Cromack.
(I once read an interview with Dennis Hopper wherein he related something James Dean had once told him – that an actor could do Hamlet’s ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ soliloquy standing on their head, munching a carrot and the audience would believe it if they could still see the actor’s eyes. Hopper said that if anyone could pull it off, it would be James Dean. Sam Cromack has a similar magic on stage. He could play a Black Eyed Peas medley, on detuned bagpipes, through a Marshall Stack, while dressed as Adolf Hitler, wearing crocs and a Hawaiian shirt – and still be the coolest motherfucker in the room.)
Following the live show, I revisited what recorded material I had to see if I’d missed something. Aside from deciding I actually quite liked ‘iFly’, I discovered a song called ‘Hello Anais’ that simply blew any conception I had of the band into smithereens. A sweeping, swooning, sigh of a song wrought from ghostly harmonies, trilling piano lines, swaying rhythms and a gently melting brass section, ‘Hello Anais’ made ‘iFly’ – newly endeared to me, though it was – look like a cross between a finger painting and a punchline.
As they released more material, I gradually fell in love with the band. Actually, that’s a lie. I fell in love with them the moment I heard ‘Sad Rude Future Dude’. The first snippet of new material released following the ‘Conquer The Town, Easy As Cake’ EP that had housed the game-changing ‘Hello Anais’ (and surprisingly beguiling ‘iFly’), ‘Sad Rude Future Dude’ was and remains a precision blast of genius lyricism and flawless songwriting. It is, at once, undeniably hilarious and uncomfortably poignant. The kind of number that makes you laugh before you realise you could be the butt of the joke. Well, that was my reaction, anyway.
Since then, I’ve been a devoted fan. I squeal and dance at their live shows (in my own muted, graceless ways) and do similarly around my lounge room while listening to their music at home. Honestly, this article would have come along a lot quicker if I hadn’t been busy cavorting around in my underpants while writing it. (Priorities, though – can’t ignore them. Life just gets ridiculous, otherwise.) Still, irony of ironies, I might have been right the first time I heard them. Their debut album tends to suggest it.
I don’t mean Happiness And Surrounding Suburbs is the kind of record that should inspire hatred. It will, I have no doubt, but that’s not the relationship I have with it. I mean the idea of Ball Park Music as supremely talented opportunists may be more accurate than not. You see, Happiness aAnd Surrounding Suburbs is both a hugely exciting and genuinely frustrating listen – and the frustration and excitement both stem from the same source: Ball Park Music have more talent than they know how to effectively deploy.
Now, typically, when a critic makes comments like that, they’re referring to technical ability – deriding musicians driven more by the expression of technical acumen than artistic or emotional ideals – but that is not the case in this instance. Oh, Ball Park Music certainly have chops. Opener ‘Literally Baby’ hurls layer upon layer of clever musical trickery on top of what is actually one of the most straightforward (and flat-out awesome) songs on the record. No, when I say Ball Park Music have talent, I mean talent – not ability.
Sam Cromack is a man who effectively oozes good songs. I’m of the mind that if you placed him in the sun with his arms outstretched that such songs would droop like stalactites from his fingertips or cluster around his lips like facial hair. If you don’t believe me, check out his side project My Own Pet Radio – a project completely devoid of rules and regulations that has already churned out a surplus of absolutely cracking tunes. If it’s the fish that John West reject that make John West the best, Sam Cromack is the John West of Brisbane music.
Hell, he could one day be the guy who rejects John West, his fish and all the fish that he rejects. Imagine how much best that guy would encompass? Fuck John West. That motherfucker would boast so much best.
Now, if you combine Cromack’s unbelievable talent with Ball Park Music’s undeniable ability, you have more potential than most bands of greater accomplishment, age or experience could ever hope to so much as glimpse. Factor in their youth, however, and you have all of that ability delivered without even a hint of focus. That, in essence, is Ball Park Music’s debut album Happiness And Surrounding Suburbs. It is – and, honestly, this is as much a compliment as an insult – musical premature ejaculation.
Seriously. It is the sonic equivalent of taking the building blocks of life itself and blasting them messily over and around the nexus of their intended target.
Obviously – and without meaning to reveal too much of my personal life – this is as ecstatic as it is underwhelming. Indeed, the first half of the record is pure, unmitigated brilliance. There’s the opening salvo, 2011 indie-pop’s ultimate Trojan horse single ‘It’s Nice To Be Alive’ (perhaps the most life-affirming song about the stupidity of organised religion that you’ll hear all year), similarly smartarse cuts like ‘Rich People Are Stupid’ and the sublime ‘Sad Rude Future Dude’. The set is even rounded out by a pair of wistful, gorgeous numbers with the yearning ‘All I Want is You’ and the thunderously ethereal ‘Alligator’.
After that, though – things get uncomfortable. The figurative precum starts to run and then the whole thing explodes in a mess all over everything.
(Yeah, I really should have chosen a different metaphor, I know.)
The second half of the album consists of a series of songs that, individually, are all at the very least exceptional. There’s the percussive haze of ‘Birds Down In The Basement’ and the snotty drawl of ‘Shithaus’ – even ‘iFly’ makes a return appearance. They’re all well-crafted, cleverly written and exceptionally performed. They just don’t hang together well at all. Stylistically, there are hints of everything from recent Radiohead to Revolver-era Beatles. As I said, it explodes all over everything.
Fantastically-titled closer ‘Happy Healthy Citizen Of The Developed World Blues’ is most emblematic of its blown load – so many hooks, ideas and melodies blasted at the listener with such rapidity and enthusiasm that it’s difficult to really understand what’s happening for most of the time. Hell, in the second half of the song, the band almost completely reprise the opener (before concluding the album in the most graceless way imaginable – for which they have my compliments). It’s incredible but, at the same time, frustrating.
Here’s a question, though: Nobody enjoys a blown load in the literal sense (well, at least one person in the equation does – but nobody else) but, with music, should you actually be disappointed by a lover’s inability to close a deal? Or should you just be thankful that somebody actually came close to giving you a decent fuck?