Ballyhoo! - Pineapple Grenade
Record Label: Right Coast Records
Release Date: June 25, 2013
Pineapple Grenade,the 5th album from reggae-rockers Ballyhoo!, finds the band more relaxed and confident than ever. It is both familiar and new; with some tracks reminiscent of their popular breakout album, 2008’s Cheers!, while others find the band expanding upon their sound, diversifying, and spreading their wings into new territory.
The album arrives a short 21 months after their 4th album Daydreams, and the fast turnaround time lends itself to an album that is not over thought, and despite the shiny polish of studio production, still has a raw and spontaneous feel to it. It wasn't overcooked.
Daydreams was released nearly 3.5 years after Cheers!,a relatively long span of time which not only caused significant pent-up demand from their fans, but from the band itself. So much happened to the band in that 3.5 year period that Daydreams came off as tense and dark, at least what passes for dark from the band that brought you “Cali Girl”, “Cerveza”,“Alchohol Looks Beautiful Tonight”, and other lighthearted reggae-rock backyard party jams. From the opening salvo of “Evil Penguin” to the closing epic ballad “Ricochet”, the band was clearly proving a point; they were back and in this for the long haul, and grew up and are a little more serious now.
The album was a marked change in direction from Cheers!, from subtleties like Scott Vandrey ditching his turntables for keyboards (a transition which actually started to occur midway through the extensive Cheers!touring cycle, although he still uses turntables live to preserve the true sound of their earlier material), to more overt changes like front man/guitarist Howi Spangler's heavy riffing and the more aggressive approach of several songs.
If all of that was a little heady and intense for some fans,Pineapple Grenade will be welcomed as a relieving breath of fresh air. The band did not head further down the path of rough-edged riffing and darker lyrics, a path that seemed to be steering them away from their lighthearted reggae rock, but instead reconnected with their lighter, poppier side, while still experimenting and further developing their sound through what is clearly now top-shelf instrumentation.
Up first is album opener “She Wants To Destroy Me”. It features their classic sound from the days of Cheers! of catchy reggae-pop verses that lead into a heavier bridge and an anthemic chorus, the familiar formula which put them on the map in the first place. However, the transition from chorus to the chilled-out bridge featuring one of Howi’s best reggae lead riffs of their career, which occurs a few times in the song, is what makes it stand out and above songs from their back catalog that had a similar approach, but the execution is now sharper and cleaner than ever. This will surely be a fan favorite because of the familiarity of the sound and is a very pleasing opening track, and not as jarring as the piano opening into a heavy two minute blast of ska-punk that was “Evil Penguin” from their previous release.
The second track, “Battle Cry”, shows the band blending their heavier sound of Daydreams into a fun surf-rock-ska song, a fun mash-up of styles that the band hasn't attempted before, but executes flawlessly. Surely to be a blast live.
The third track, “Take It Easy”, again feels like a throwback taken to the next level of instrumentation. It has almost a “Cali Girl” feel to it, very poppy with wonderful flourishes of sound that build their sound well beyond what they were doing back when they wrote “Cali Girl”.
Fourth track and new single “No Good” seems destined for radio play. The band flew to California to work with Rome Ramirez (of “Sublime with Rome”) for his production touches and ideas, and had it mixed by acclaimed reggae-rock producer/engineer, Paul Leary. The song is, as a result, clearly the most produced and layered song in their catalog, with electronic elements and beats supplementing the band's traditional sound.
The fifth track, “Run”, has a chorus hook that soars to the heights of “Last Night” from Daydreams,the bands’ first breakout radio single which was a staple on Sirius Radio channel Faction throughout late 2011 and into 2012. The verses have almost an indie-pop feel, with a clean choppy garage-rock guitar that has almost the feel of Daydreams’ “Meathead”, but performed even tighter.
Tracks six and seven continue with the feel of Daydreams heavier riffing and epic choruses mixed with a bit of garage pop. But the true next head turner on the record arrives with the start of the second half, the track “Beautiful Day”. This song exemplifies the best of the bands songwriting to date. The song feels as sunny as the title and lyrics, and like much of the album, has a more refreshing and lighthearted tone than Daydreams. The layers build as the song progresses and Spangler’s vocals couldn't achieve loftier heights. The backup vocals harmonize perfectly, and the best moment of the song and one of the best moments on the entire album arrives when the song modulates to a higher key on the final chorus. It’s a professional touch that shows the band fully understands their sound and how to manipulate their formula for perfect results, a self-awareness of sound not present on their prior releases, but still doesn't come off as over thought or manufactured.
Track nine is one of the most experimental cuts on the whole album, as the band delivers a folky/country-esque ballad, with layers of mandolins on top of drummer Donald "Big D" Spangler’s folky drum brushes, territory the band has never entered before. The song still comes off as poppy, but the lyrics touch upon the sad subject of losing a parent, a subject for which Howi expertly expresses vocal emotion and, to some extent unfortunately, can evoke his best lyrics on any given Ballyhoo! album to those paying close enough attention, and “When They Told Me” is no different.
Up next is a wonderful reggae love ballad “Lost at Sea”, featuring the best guitar lead on the album in the songs intro. The imagery of beaches and island life are instantly evoked by this musical candy, and the delivery from Howi is as pure as it gets, as he never comes off as trite or contrived, likely rooted in his humble and hardworking “no-ego” approach to the band.
The album takes a sudden veer after this trio of lighter feeling, ballad-type songs and into straight-up Green Day punk-pop territory with the sing-along anthem “Outta My Mind”, which is sure to get the fans moving in a live setting. The song is fun, and for fans that have heard their punk version of “The Quest” from their 2006 album, is a welcomed and fun moment on the record.
The album then ends with another trio of experiments and ballad-type songs, starting with “A Lesson in Gravity”, and these songs also showcase Vandrey's wonderful piano playing ability. “Wasting Away” shows the band growing up a bit and reflecting on their earlier days of being lost in a drunken haze of parties, bar shows in Maryland and beautiful girls of course. The album wraps with the doo-wop inspired slow dance, “Morning Sunlight”, which shows off Howi’s vocal range better than any song since possibly “The Fool” or “Saw Her Standing” from Cheers! The song is about the constant cycle of homecomings and departures associated with tour life, and builds into a big chorus, but truly the verses are the best part of the song, and it ends on a lovely piano note from Vandrey.
Of course, no review can do justice to the intricacies of sound that make Ballyhoo! so special. On the surface, a listener will always be pulled in by the guitars and vocals…but under the surface is Donald’s expert drumming, which mixes the off-beat feeling and fills and flourishes of Chad Sexton of 311 with a more direct and aggressive beat and style that gives the overall poppy sound of the band a badass foundation. No rhythm section is complete without the bass though, and bassist JR Gregory and Donald Spangler have built such a tight musical camaraderie that even they may be unaware of how apparent it is that they are cleanly in a vibe with each other. JR’s creative bass lines have always helped the band establish their reggae foundation, and pull the listeners in with creativity locked in sync with Donald’s drums. Enough also cannot be said for Scott’s growing ability at keyboards. On Pineapple Grenade, his piano lines feel more natural and confident than on Daydreams and blend better with the overall sounds of the record. Without his addition to the layers of sound, the overall sonic experience of the band would not be as full or as satisfying.
An analogy can be drawn between the musical growth of the band over their past three records, and their shooters of choice. On Cheers!,the band were Jager-swilling party animals, having fun and not worrying about the next day. On Daydreams, they would slam Jameson whiskey like a road-hardened gang with a chip on their shoulders and something to prove. Now on PineappleGrenade, the band is ready to chill out a little bit, enjoy the ride, and diversify their ingredients a little bit, and thus their newly invented pineapple grenade shots of Malibu, vanilla vodka, pineapple juice and grenadine are par for the course today…and while that foo-foo mixture may sound a little settled-down at first compared to their past, it ain’t about thinking you’re confident and slamming whiskey, it’s now about knowing you’re confident enough to slam down whatever you want, and I’ll be damned if a pineapple grenade doesn’t go down smoother than any Jager or whiskey, and it hits just as hard and is even more satisfying in the end.