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“Puddinghead” is an insult out of Shakespeare, something Ball Park Music songwriter Sam Cromack picked up in a high school English class. To hear the band explain it, a puddinghead is someone who messes up even the simplest of tasks. Hearing it, Cromack was tickled by the word’s quaintness, and it became a private joke with friends.
The title is a perplexing one for the band’s third record: it describes neither Cromack nor the album. There is, it must be said, nothing wrong-footed about either. Self-produced, self-directed and self-aware, Puddinghead will come to be seen as a career-defining moment for the Brisbane band. It marks their return to pop and also, happily, a return to form.
Apart from being the band’s principal songwriter, Cromack has also taken on the role of album producer. Self-produced albums are more commonly made by solo artists and for very good reason: they never have to compromise and have no one to argue with but themselves. When an honest-to-goodness band submits itself to the direction and vision of one member it can be a recipe for disaster and discord. It’s a testament to Cromack’s talent and to his band’s confidence in him that rather than being a disaster Puddinghead is a triumph.
Not that Museum, their previous album, was a disappointment. Far from it, particularly for this listener. Museum was a huge leap forward for the band, both sonically and artistically. But it was a much more introspective and moody beast, quite at odds with the devil-may-care personality the band had shown on their previous recordings and in their relentlessly boisterous live shows.
It has been a gradual but seemingly inevitable climb to success for Ball Park Music. Forming six years ago at university, their first independent EP received powerful support from Triple J. That relationship became even cosier with the release of their next EP, featuring the concert favourite “iFly”. Mutual admiration between the band and Triple J soon blossomed into a full-blooded romance when they released their debut album, Happiness and Surrounding Suburbs. Many of its songs enjoyed high rotation on the youth network, and listeners later voted the album into the top 10 of the station’s end-of-year poll.
Happiness perfectly captured the band’s combination of nervous energy and juicy pop. Though filled with anthemic crowd-pleasers, it was executed with an idiosyncratic panache that promised big things. Cue their new album.
The opening track and first single, “She Only Loves Me When I’m There”, begins with a poignant vocoder that harks back to the textures first explored on Museum. It isn’t long before the rest of the band springs into action and the song transforms into stomping pop, something akin to the Dandy Warhols if the Dandys were in a particularly buoyant mood.
“Next Life Already” continues the up-tempo flavour. Actually, the whole album is briskly paced. Even the slower songs have an optimistic spin. Whether it’s a result of keyboard washes, hummable guitar figures or vocal hooks, there is always something to counter even the most downcast lyric. “Next Life Already” is what is known in the tunesmith trade as a “list song”: it contains a series of images that illustrate, or contrast, the song’s theme. Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” are two notable examples. It contains the first of many religious references. God, Satan and the Holy Ghost all get a shoutout on the album but, speaking as an avowed atheist, I never detected a hint of preaching. Whether Sam is using these images metaphorically or to indicate a deeper faith, I just can’t tell. All I know is there is plenty on the album to discomfit a Hillsong happy clapper.
Four songs in, “Teenage Pie” gives us a chance to catch our breath after all the exuberance. It is probably the first song I could confidently predict won’t be a single – not for any drop in quality, but because there is such an embarrassment of riches on this album when it comes to radio choices. None more so than the next song, “Trippin’ the Light Fantastic”. We are back in Dandy Warhols territory again, with an infectious wooh-ooh-ooh chorus hook. I’m also reminded of dance-pop maestros Scissor Sisters – a combination roughly equivalent to pop heaven.
At this point on the album I hear some explicit Beatles influence – namely Abbey Road and its celebrated medley, or suite, on side two. “Trippin’ the Light Fantastic”, “Cocaine Lion” and “Everything Is Shit Except My Friendship with You” are all linked sonically and possibly thematically. Is it a tale of drugs, dissolution and disillusion – the rush, the comedown and the inevitable regret? Perhaps. The phrase “Cocaine Lion” is apparently another of Cromack’s private jokes and we aren’t meant to infer from it that he is a budding Scarface.
Alternatively, could this be a three-song portrait of a relationship – rush, comedown and regret being equally apropos? The final lyric of “Everything Is Shit” is “Fruit falls on my head and I don’t discover anything at all”. The ghost of Isaac Newton is summoned but Cromack could also be ruminating on something as banal as a post-gig food fight in the dressing room. The deli platter provides plenty of ammunition but not much food for thought. Without knowing anything specific about the author’s intentions, that explanation is as good as any, I suppose.
“Struggle Street” is a slight misfire and feels like a shotgun wedding between two incompatible songs. The Beatlesque-medley structure here makes the whole actually less than the sum of its parts. That said, the melodies are so good you almost forgive the song’s repetitive seesawing.
But the final three songs, “Error Playin”, “Polly Screw My Head Back On” and “The Girls from High School”, find the band back on surer ground, and they conclude proceedings in rousing fashion. Lavish keyboards, bang-on harmonies and those ever-gorgeous Cromack melodies – so damned catchy they pop into my head constantly throughout the day.
Indeed, it’s hard to pick flaws in Cromack’s songwriting, arrangement or production skills. One of the few criticisms I will make is that at times his lyrics can be deliberately opaque. I don’t mind being challenged to create my own narrative from a few disconnected images, but occasionally I get the annoying feeling that “you had to be there” is the only explanation of a song’s meaning. To quote Cromack’s own words, sometimes “fruit falls on my head and I don’t discover anything at all”.
In three albums, Ball Park Music haven’t put a foot wrong. On their debut, Happiness and Surrounding Suburbs, the band came off like an ungainly teenager, jumping out of their skin with impetuous energy and know-it-all insouciance. Museum was their world-weary welcome to adulthood, feeling old before their time while still too young to know better. With the new album, third time’s a charm. It’s obvious Ball Park Music have truly grown up and are ready to take on the world. Puddinghead is the optimistic sound of a confident, mature band, happy in their work and happy to show it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 19, 2014 as "Out of the Ball Park".
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