For the Record: Balls

By Devin McGrath-Conwell

There are some names that, when you hear them spoken, just seem to to be made for music. They have a memorable ring that keeps them floating around in your head until you hear it spoken again. The trick for any artist is crafting songs that are equally as memorable as their name. For me, one of the artists who continues to do this album after album is Griffin House. House is a Nashville based singer-songwriter who grew up in Springfield, Ohio and turned down a large scholarship from Ohio State to pursue a musical career. He has gained a faithful audience on his circuit since his first album, Upland, was released in 2003.

House is a triple threat of a musician in that he is a gifted singer, songwriter and guitarist, which means each song he releases conveys the deeply personal process inherent in his music’s creation, and in turn he gives the listener a look into the mind and interests of the man, not just the musician. His music cannot be defined easily as one specific genre. Indeed, he blends aspects of folk, rock, country and even jazz. The influence of such greats as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan can be felt in the strains of his music, and on his 2007 album Flying Upside Down, he worked with Benmont Tench, the longtime pianist for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. He picks his idols well, and by drawing on these icons he presents inventive new material tinged with homages to the past.

In February 2013, after a three-year hiatus from the recording studio, House released his seventh studio album, entitled Balls. It can be tempting to many musicians to try and reinvent themselves drastically to gain more widespread appeal, but House seems immune to this. He earned his first major hit off of 2007’s Flying Upside Down with “The Guy that Says Goodbye to You is Out of His Mind,” and instead of changing his music with a now wider audience, he stayed faithful in 2010’s follow-up The Learner, and only expands upon that well-versed base with Balls.

The album opens with “Fenway,” a song about realizing a fragmented identity fraught with disappointment amongst a place as iconic and loved as Fenway Park. It’s an interesting choice for House to use a New England icon after growing up so far away from it, but it can be taken as an accent to the song’s theme of lack of self and place. He sings, “I was faking what I’m taking/Now I’m breaking in the cheap seats/Waiting for an outfield catch.” In his immensely introspective way, he reveals that maybe he hasn’t reached the place he wants to be in his career, but maybe there will be something around the corner if he waits long enough. This introspection is a staple of his music, and the album opens with three tracks of the same fiber, following the opener with “Vacation,” a song about his dire need for a break from the rush of a musician’s life, and “Go Through It,” an anthem for confronting the complex struggle between relationships and personal baggage invading that space.

After looking inward for inspiration, House turns to a wider frame of reference with “Guns, Bombs, and Fortunes of Gold.” He is no stranger to the protest song, and this entry is a plea to the world to “Lay down your fortunes of gold/Forget the lines that we have drawn/They won’t do any good for anyone,” seeming to beg those facing off on the world’s stage to realize the err of their ways and try to fix the wounds that have seeped into every crack of the human experience. The song has its lyrical shortcomings with a few lines that feel clichéd, but the sentiment is true and we would do well to listen to what he has to say.

On the idea of sentiment, House has written and delivered more than his fair share of poignant love songs, and “Real Love Can’t Pretend” is a nice addition to his repertoire. It sculpts a moving portrayal of a man grappling with how to reveal the depth of his emotion to the woman beside him. This song is balanced nicely with “Colleen” two tracks later, which is a much cheekier and outwardly sexual song than the former, and House allows himself to have a little more fun with the idea of courtship after baring a bit of his soul in “Real Love Can’t Pretend.” He sings “I got a heart made of gold/And I would never be mean/But you make it real hard for me/To keep this dirty mind of mine clean,” and gives as much time to this equally genuine side of relationships as the purely romantic one before. It is an enjoyable change of pace.

Of the last few songs of the album, the highlight can be found in “Haunted House.” It is an atmospheric and creepy tune as much about an actual haunted house as the use of this uncomfortable place as a metaphor for relationships. Amongst a driving bass House floats above with lines such as “I get lost and no one knows/They’re keeping me over till I’m/Falling closer to the moon.” It is a marked change from the rest of the album, in which House embraces his darker side and the love he has implored before. The album is a strong effort from a gifted artist, and, if not the highest point of his discography, worth more than just a passing listen.