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David Ball

Sparkle City

(E1 Entertainment; US: 20 Apr 2010)

Born Under a Green Light

Texas country music steals its licks from all over the place. Swing jazz, boogie woogie, country blues, Nashville Opry, border sounds from Mexico: its all in there. David Ball is the prototypical Texas country troubador. He throws everything in his musical chorizo. While the blend can be tasty, sometimes he’s just making sausage. If the idea of a sausage sounds slightly obscene, a phallic symbol of dubious merit, Ball does that, too. He makes obviously silly double entrendres, such as the opening song “Hot Water Pipe”, whose title suggests what you are afraid it might. Yeah, subtlety may not be Ball’s strongest point.


Yet he is good at writing and performing story songs that just bounce along, no matter what the style. Ball’s narrators like to be traveling on. Song after song, he sings that he’s gotta be movin’ on. He frames this simple message in tales of misfortune, good luck, and somewhere in between the two. The important thing is, Ball’s characters find themselves in situations, comic and dramatic, that they need to escape from. The musical accompaniment always keeps the action moving.


That’s why the songs have names like “Back to Alabama” and “Houston Again”, and why he sings “I’m Just Along for the Ride” and “Maybe Tomorrow”. Ball is in a permanent state of transience. Even when he’s “On Top of the World” he’s “got one leg hanging off” and ready to go. Things may be looking up, but he still has to go. Resting is not an option.


This contradicts the way Ball delivers the material. He sings in a voice as comfortable as an old slipper. He rarely reaches for a note, seldom sings at a fast pace, and infrequently lowers his vocals for emphasis. Instead, the words flow with few pauses, except at the ends of sentences. The musicians may wail, hit the beats hard, and let the melody churn hot. Ball just kicks back and unwinds his tales about heading down the road. He relaxes when he is in motion.


After a while, one gets bored with the constant rambling. Ball addresses that in the one standout track, “What’ll I Do If I Don’t Have You”. The tender love song asks a partner not to leave, lest Ball be unable to find his way. One cannot help but wish Ball would have more frequently tackled the tougher question of how to stay and live. Texas country songs about leavin’ are as common as tumbleweeds in old dusty Westerns. Movies where cowboys like Alan Ladd, Gary Cooper, and such settle down are as rare as hen teeth. Songs on the topic are even more uncommon. Ball has got the chops and talent to get serious. He’s done it in the past with songs like “Thinkin’ Problem” and “Riding With Private Malone”, but this new release just has him performing good-time tunes in a pleasant manner. There’s nothing wrong with that. Put this on while taking a drive and one can float down the highway, but be sure to change the disc when one gets home.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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