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Dave Ball's solo album • Don't Forget your Alligator

Angel Air SJPCD395 • April 2012

I should start this brief review by confessing that I had already heard a few demos, and listened to the tracks that Dave Ball shared with his Facebook friends, and was really looking forward to it. The day it arrived in the post I had to drive to Southend-on-Sea, so my first encounter with it, under motorway conditions, was perhaps not ideal. Nevertheless, it was a real delight, and it got played three or four times back-to-back while the other CDs I’d brought on the trip (Glenn Tilbrook and the Fluffers, the latest Leonard Cohen, Peter Gabriel, and Ben Folds/Nick Hornby) stayed in their cases.  

Listening to Don't Forget your Alligator now, in better circumstances, I'm even more impressed. The album opens with the excellent Code Blue – arguably the most thoroughly ‘produced’ track on the album. It kicks off with a pulsing heartbeat, and ends with a flatlining monitor-beep: in between, a terminal hospital drama plays out over a chugging rhythm, broken by a burst of piercing electric guitar (as shown in this YouTube film – though the mixed record sounds very much better). The Ball voice –always warm, mature and engaging on this album – sounds here for all the world like David Bowie in the call-and-response vocals (with their insanely catchy melody);  Georgia Wood adds nicely to the vocal milieu too. Ball was not long in Procol Harum and it could be argued that the main Harum influence throughout his first solo album comes primarily from Keith Reid: the concise blend of the poignant and the pungent  in ‘Heart beat / red meat / it’s the only thing – keeps you on your feet / Breath deep / Don’t weep … I’m your pacemaker / I’m your soul taker’ is characteristic of the high verbal quality of the writing here.                       

Next up is the title track, Don't Forget your Alligator, a much more smoochy affair, EQ’d voice and straight four-to-the-bar rhythm guitar with slightly jazzy voicings reminiscent of some lost Al Bowlly classic. DB scats and dooby-doos while an ersatz accordion plays. There is plenty of wordplay in this light-hearted lament for a fried mind: the booze could be to blame, judging by couplets like ‘Sun’s down over the yard-arm / one drink – can’t do much harm / If you see my mind please send it on home / No more to roam’ – and you'll see the Ball brain making its escape in this suitably eccentric illustrated YouTube clip

Dreams are Free follows, with a Beatley vibe, ‘float downstream’ presumably being a deliberate quotation. It’s heralded by some nice bluesy guitar sliding. Dave harmonises with himself to excellent effect as the track builds. As everywhere on the album the words are intriguing and they ‘sing’ really well, even when mouthfuls like ‘Morpheus’ and ‘synaptic’ are involved. Nice to hear ‘whomever’ in a pop song too! The half-hippie meandering of ‘We live our lives / Unconsciously / Do what we want / It all comes free … Fly in the sky / There is no rush / we never die’ is broken into –   as often on the album – by a much more serious undertow: ‘Dawn is coming / To break the spell / Sun is rising / On my private hell’ suggests that this paean to the world of dreams is no mere lightweight escapism.

Track four is the Meltdown Shuffle, chordally less straightforward than it sounds on first hearing; it takes some unsurprising harmonic steps then changes gear and keeps the listener guessing by establishing a new tonal centre. Dave sings with bluesy conviction and some nice sinuous guitar weaves itself around the lyric, which deals with daydreaming: ‘inertia central’ is overcome thanks to the effects of boiling blood and freshly functioning brain: an effective little story of recovery, all apparently triggered by a great guitar solo halfway through.

After the excellent initial gag of ‘Gonna write a song with feeling / Gonna write it out in Braille’, there’s something about Gonnadothis Gonnadothat that reminds me of Procol's Without a Doubt: ‘If the critics won’t accept it / Gonna write some poetry … Gonna try my hand at sculpture … Gonna try my hand at art / I will be the new Picasso’ although, in a typically scabrous touch the next line is ‘Or some other old dead fart’. But there is a definite non-Procol characteristic on the album too, in that several consecutive songs are in the same key, and this one could practically segue out of the previous number.

The guitar sound – it was recorded at Denny Ball studios in Australia – on Gonnadothis Gonnadothat has a real ‘live’ edge to it; Dave Ball also contributes some effective organ. The über-aspirational lyric contains more than a touch of self-parody – get Dave talking about his ‘Project Hubris’ some time and you will see what I mean – but he is more than capable of cutting himself down to size:  all the lofty Gonnadothissing collapses into bathos with ‘Gonna grow my own petunias / For a stall when times are lean’ … . I bet DB listened to the Bonzos’ Can Blue Men Sing the Whites? once or twice, back in the day …

Recorded at Flying Kiwi in Darmstadt, Old Aunties and Uncles sounds like a very happy collision of a Squeeze lyric with a Kinks backing-track: it's about making tea, watching television, knitting, drinking bottled stout, mothballs and carbuncles, sitting by the electric fire, and … perhaps inevitably … waiting for death to come knocking. Brushed snare-drum and walking bass create the mood behind a straight-strumming steel acoustic guitar and a warbling Hammond: and the serious core of the song is a rueful rant at an absent God who ‘kicked me into touch’. Very interesting stuff.

The jangling twelve-strings on Priceless give it a trans-Atlantic feel, suggesting that DB once listened to a fair share of early Dylan and The Lovin’ Spoonful. It would be fair to say that this is not the most original of the tracks, but it’s nicely sung (and whistled) and makes a pleasant 2m40s of countrified listening – definitely something that the radio stations will want to play. The words are allusive, and there seems to be a marital break-up at the heart of them: 'You threw the kid out with the toys' ... 'You sell something that’s priceless / For a price you can’t resist'. The chorus strikes many sad lyrical echoes 'I’m leaving at daybreak / travelling far from here' but the music remains upbeat.                                                  

The Madness of George Pritchard is next up (G major is clearly a favourite Ball key) and it’s a gem. Peculiar and haunting guitar chords underly some unsettlingly incomplete surreal lyrics (‘I’m confused, da de da de dum … I have an elephant in my head, in my head … I’ve a limpet on my bum’), which alternate with a mildly smutty tour of the zodiac. (Incidentally the George Pritchard of the title is not the Victorian missionary from Dave’s hometown of Birmingham UK, but rather a little eight-year-old boy whom the lyricist heard, in 1999, announcing ‘Daddy, I have an elephant in my head’). Out of the whole collection this is the song I could not get out of my mind, that I woke up trying to sing, but realised I could not capture – except for the much more straightforward up-tempo chorus, (‘The universe is buggered … We’re a parasitic species … I only hope the aliens get here soon …’) – without putting the CD on again. It's an intriguing cut-and-shunt blend of two different feels … daring, strange, memorable.

Simply This remains in the same key, but has almost nothing else in common: Dave goes for a yearning, heartfelt MOR ballad, its simple lyric sung with melismatic rubato and yeah-yeah-yeahing emotion. Producer Sev Lewkowicz (you know him from his great Palers’ Project tracks here and here) produces the perfect MOR setting for the uncharacteristically predictable words: ‘It’s simply that I love you / It’s simply that I care / It’s simply that I love you / And knowing that you’re there …’. I can't say I really relish this particular track, but it's certainly well done, and there is some laudable daring in committing to such heart-on-sleeve honesty, when so much else of the surrounding material sounds amiably twisted and mischievous.

So Sad is another stirring and effective track; its pared-down lyric (it starts ‘So sad, I want my Dad … so glum, I want my Mum’) sounds as though it owes something to Plastic Ono Band-era Lennon, though those angsty teenage lines were written long before fab John ever heard of primal screaming. As on many tracks, brother Denny Ball provides all the backing apart from Dave’s guitars and organ: the bass-playing here is particularly striking, and at the end it’s almost duetting with the lovely lead guitar, which very melodic, very white, very saturated, very George Harrison. It's a rare thing, listing to anybody's first solo album in a forty-odd year career, to find oneself wishing that so many of the songs went on much longer. Luckily, one can play them again …

Stardust Maginty, which starts with squalling guitar and churchy Hammond, is very touching. As Dave told me, ‘Maginty was my Mum's nickname; Stardust, for that is what she became.’ The well-known photograph [left] of the Ball clan, looking a bit like the Addams Family, accompanies the lyric in the CD liner booklet – which incidentally lists all the musicians involved and the many home studios in addition. It tells of how she ‘started life as a child / then finished like one too’; and it confesses that ‘The drugs that we abused / became your last best friend / as you cried through your pain …’. Dave sings with passion that ‘I hope I’ll have your courage / when it’s time for me to die’ and plays out with a great bluesy solo.

Geriatric Slumbers must, I guess, be a late song, prompted by the artist’s reaching bus-pass age, at least in chronological terms! This is a rockabilly workout in the good loud key of E, in which Dave (in Elvis slap-back mode) declares himself to be ‘just an old fart’ who’s got ‘gout in my toes’ and whose ‘knees both click’ while he’s ‘waitin’ for my pension in the Post Office queue’. His guitar sparkles in a very non-geriatric style, and brother Denny provides bass and drums – it all sounds very live! The compulsive wordplay resurfaces in a mischievous riff at the end containing lines like ‘One step away from chunder …I’ve got it in the bag … Plastic Ono bag … the bag of fruit … the colostomy bag’ and ending with ‘Hey, that’s not my bag’ … Can Mr Ball really be quoting a line from Harold Pinter's play The Caretaker – or is this one more Keith Reidesque literary coincidence?

Track 13, Who Really Cares, is the only item on the album that weighs in at over five minutes, and it does not outstay its welcome for a moment. The very brief words do not appear in the booklet, but are revealed when one takes the CD out of the box. Arguably the most literary text in the collection, each verse presents five alliterating terms (for instance, ‘Enticing / Evolving / Engaging / Encouraging / Exciting’) whose effect is greatly enhanced by the two-minute build-up of orchestral sound (a real ’cellist is credited) with big walloping drums and organ. Then there’s a good three minutes of instrumental playout, during which Dave’s guitars ‘gently weep’ over a hypnotically repeating chord sequence … from which the orchestra gradually retreats … as in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony … . This long instrumental coda is the element in the album that will most appeal to Procoholics, I suspect, and where continuously-inventive and tasteful playing confirms Ball’s place as a soloist in the Whitehorn / Gilmour pantheon.

As the minor ostinato of Who Really Cares resolves on a final tierce de Picardie, (‘a Picadilly third’ as my late brother liked to call it) one imagines that the album is over: after all, no more lyrics are listed. But no! There is a quirky codicil still to come, somewhat like the lo-fi Her Majesty on Abbey Road or the even loer-fi My Mummy’s Dead on the first Plastic Ono Band album. January Sales deals with the ‘sorry affair’ of Mr Ball’s first carnal escapade, during which his long-suffering partner (while browsing a newspaper and doing her nails) offers him some inadequate anatomical directions. ‘I poked around …’ sings Dave, who ‘finally found a fit’ – whereupon she ‘cried out in despair’ that he should ‘stop your acting queer’ and try ‘two inches further up’. I’m not going into any more detail – children might be reading – but it's very funny, tape-hiss and finger-picking and Ozzy twang and all. 

So … a consistently entertaining and inventive album – running at over forty minutes – from Procol Harum's one-time guitarist. The liner notes contain many self-deprecating put-downs (‘A labour of love – or an act of desperation? A last ditch effort before I get too old?’) but the listener can ignore these entirely – likewise the confession that they were recorded in home studios, and that the playing could have been tighter. It's engaging, thought-provoking, very varied, and very musical. Let us hope it’s the first of many solo albums from this fine musician!

Sources very close to the guitarist reveal that he already has the track lists (and rough demos) for the next six albums! 'You should be careful what you wish for!', said the source.

Buy Dave Ball's Don't Forget your Alligator from Amazon UK or pre-order from Amazon USA | Click here for Dave's autobiography

Dave Ball's page at BtP | More reviews of this album

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