The Ball Brothers are one of southern gospel’s youngest and most progressive groups. Consistently thinking outside the box, they serve up a uniquely tight, pop-flavored harmonic blend that recalls GoFish or the Backstreet Boys more than your typical southern gospel men’s group. They built their career as four blood brothers, but since then they’ve replaced two, including brother Stephen, who tragically had to bow out due to early onset hearing loss. Fortunately, Andy Tharp and Chad McCloskey have seamlessly slipped into the groove, and anyone who didn’t know any better could easily think all four are related. Their fresh, youthful appeal has many fans wondering if it’s only a matter of time before Ernie Haase signs them to StowTown Records, since he played a large part in giving them their first exposure. Click below the fold for my thoughts on their latest release, Priority.
*This project is heavy on big-band arrangements, and on the whole, it’s a happy marriage with the Brothers’ tight vocals. Props to their young pianist and arranger Cody McVey, who must be quite an old soul to have such a deft hand with these throwback orchestrations, especially the 1-2-3 punch of the first three tracks. He’s doing for the Ball Brothers what Trey Ivey is doing for Legacy Five.
* “It’s Gonna Be a Good Day” puts a fresh spin on an old Gaither tune. It’s heartier than the typical ice-breaker, taking its time with the lush harmonies and Hammond/brass-rich background. I typically forget opening tracks right away, but this one is actually a highlight of the album. Ditto for the slow-building follow-up “Someday,” which fairly shimmers with swaying strings and jazz chords.
*I showcased this album’s cover of The Mullins’ “Who’s Gonna Stand in the Gap” (wr. Squire Parsons) in a “toe-to-toe” with the original last week. Personally, I much prefer the Ball Brothers’ full-on jazz rendition. At a certain point, I just set it on repeat. It’s a Brian Free & Assurance caliber performance, and it shows how perfectly everything comes together for them when they have great material to sink their teeth into. The song has a great message, it’s just plain fun, and it’s sure to get folks up out of the seats and clapping along.
*I’ve always thought Andrew Ball was an underrated tenor singer. He’s not particularly rangey or bombastic, but his clean, pure high end is spot-on for the group’s sound. It takes every track up a notch. One example is a really sweet little tune called “Nothing to Bring Him But Me.” I can’t find any info on this song except that it was also first recorded by the Mullins family on Vocal Point. It makes me think of an old, croony Imperials song.
* This project is heavy on light songs, which is the group’s forte, but “Just As I Am” is a solid ballad picked from Lauren Talley’s catalogue.
* The boys get their Take 6 on with the finger-snapping, slinky spiritual medley “You’re Gonna Need Him/If We Ever Needed.” Chad McCloskey proves that he’s a valuable asset with his soulful singing on this track. Of course everybody knows the second spiritual, but I wasn’t familiar with the first one before. The lines about “Taking him with you” everywhere made me think of Roger Bennett’s insight that “The Holy Spirit is portable.”
*I don’t necessarily mind Auto-Tune as long as I don’t know about it. But when I’m listening along and can actually hear the pitch getting artificially bent into place, it produces a trite, distracting effect. This happens in a few places throughout the album, most noticeably all through the verses of “Lead Me to Jesus.”
*The Ball Brothers usually have at least one out-of-left-field track that leaves me scratching my head per album. For this one, it’s their cover of the praise & worship standard “Beautiful One,” originally recorded by Jeremy Camp. I can’t fault Chad McCloskey’s silky Michael Buble impression, it’s just completely out of place on this song. Now, what might have worked better would be if they had the copyright leeway to massage the lyrics into purely a love song, minus references to God’s majesty and such. Then it would just be cute and fun. But the actual effect is like oil and water.
*This group has yet to record a really great original ballad, and while songs like “Forgive Me” and “Look To the Cross” are nice enough, I just don’t hear it yet. Both songs suffer from formulaic melody, leaden pacing and a failure to make a truly effective emotional connection. Their cover of “Mercy Said No” some years back is probably still the best thing they’ve done. If they could just find a brand-new ballad of that caliber, it might give them the “X-factor” they are currently seeking.
*Part of the issue might be that they don’t always give their ballads to their best ballad singers. Andy Tharp is a good blender, but he’s just average when he has to carry a song like “Forgive Me.” McCloskey is better on “Just As I Am,” but Daniel and Andrew Ball are still the group’s most compelling soloists.
Bottom line: This is definitely the album you want to pop into the CD player on a long summer drive. Kids will love it, and you just might find yourself tapping your feet along with them. It may not move you deeply or leave you going “Wow, THAT song!” but its slick production and catchy tunes will nestle comfortably in your ear and keep you smiling. It’s available now from all major retail outlets.
Rating: 4 stars