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And in THIS corner, weighing in at one hundred and thirty-eight pounds from Detroit, Michigan… Hank Ballard.

And so begins Round Two of the tête-à-tête between two boxers… err… singers, fighting out of the same gym as it were.

Of course if you haven’t been following the recent battle for the lead vocalist role for The Royals none of this means a damn thing to you. Suffice it to say that despite Charles Sutton’s impressive record on artistic merit, his mediocre commercial returns left him vulnerable to an upstart challenger.

So now Ballard gets another chance in the center of the ring on this side of their latest single to see if he’s a viable contender for the championship belt.


Haven’t You Heard The Latest News?
To keep the boxing analogy going, they say “styles make fights”, which means if you have two defensive minded boxers facing off in the ring you aren’t going to get a slugfest.

Here the “opponents” are suitably different, giving you two distinct styles to choose from. Charles Sutton, the original lead of The Royals, was a balladeer with a strong voice, great control and a healthy dose of tenderness that wisely avoided sappiness.

By contrast Hank Ballard was a hard-driving gospel-rooted vocalist who unlike Sutton who expertly let his emotions be seen mostly at angles, in low-light and for just brief moments while pretending to keep them in check, Ballard pushed emotion to the forefront of everything he did, letting it all hang out.

As de facto opponents this matchup presented the perfect contrast in styles. Subtlety and precision going against a brash vocal assault.

In a better world than this, they’d have been recognized as ideal counterbalances for a group that needed them both to truly excel creatively.

Just as the flip seemed to pose a question from Sutton’s perspective, this side seems to do the same from Ballard, asking, Are You Forgetting… that record companies like one lead singer to win out thereby ensuring the audience is never left wondering why each release isn’t cut from the same cloth as the last one and the one before that.

As a result this is a fight that maybe neither of them wanted, at least without some assurance of their own victory, yet it was one that was destined to take place on each release until a winner was declared.

Every Dog Has Its Day
As expected Hank Ballard comes out swinging, bobbing and weaving and constantly pressing the attack.

It’s a fast-paced rhythmic song that suits his style, which is hardly surprising since he wrote it himself, an advantage he had over Charles Sutton who relied on other writers for his best material.

But Are You Forgetting isn’t the best material, even if it is ideal for Ballard’s strengths as a singer. Like the flip side, this one has rather forgettable elements at its core. Though the melodic hook is catchier and thus more memorable, it doesn’t lead anywhere, in large part because the lyrics don’t forge the kind of connection to it that has you impulsively singing along to it.

Years later, with Ballard’s voice recognizable thanks to the ensuing run of hits, you might be inclined to give him more of the benefit of the doubt here, but it’s hardly coincidental this wasn’t a hit with it missing some key components that have the ability to turn merely good songs into must-hear sides.

It does have a few of the core attributes of a hit going for it, starting with the relentless rolling tempo which hits the ground running on the intro with a rousing shared vocal that sounds like a vocal group reimagined as cheerleaders. It also features a stop-time interlude designed to draw more attention to Ballard’s technique and raise the dramatic stakes. It even has the familiar trope of the shouted lead-in to the sax solo which starts off a little too demure to fully connect but picks up as it goes along with the others crying in true holy-roller style behind it.

Yet those elements, while a welcome wrinkle in their ballad heavy catalog, need stronger materials to vault it to hit status. This is a solid start from Ballard the songwriter with some good images to catch your ear, but the story itself – trying to win back the fading interest of one specific girl by touting how popular he is with other girls – has trouble connecting, especially because it presents conflicting emotions throughout.

By the end he’s threatening to dump HER, then immediately tells her he wants her which shows his emotional instability, and with his earlier boasts still ringing in your ears you not only understand why the girl is ready to walk away from him, but you want to give her a ride to the bus depot to get her out of town even faster.

It’s still a vibrant performance though, even if the record doesn’t finish the round strongly, both lyrically and musically, but like all things, you get better with practice. If Ballard is going to be the contender he dreams of being then he’ll learn to craft a more streamlined message, he’ll figure out how to take the upbeat vibe shown here and distill it to something even more forceful and if he’s lucky he’ll have a eureka moment where he hits upon a formula that has the impact of an asteroid on a collision course with a vast open prairie.

Or else he won’t and then he’ll fade into oblivion like so many others.

This isn’t it, but after hearing the brash confidence he shows here, the odds that he’ll find it at some point just ticked up a little more.


I Won’t Worry, Come What May
The way to score a bout in the ring is pretty straightforward… clean punching, effective aggressiveness, defense and ring generalship… but in music there are far more variables.

A great voice can’t do much with a bad song. A terrific arrangement can’t compensate for tone-deaf singers. A perfect composition given to out of touch musicians does nothing. Everything needs to balance out for something to really work.

So far we haven’t quite gotten that from the last two Royals releases when the dueling lead singers are going head to head, and because of this both Charles Sutton and Hank Ballard are trying to win points on the margins.

With two rounds in the books, nothing has been settled as the scorecards are dead even – ten to ten.

But Are You Forgetting a little thing called momentum? I dunno know about you, but we’re certainly not, as with this record it becomes evident that Ballard is gaining strength, getting the best result of the four entries this time around and in the process establishing the building blocks of a style that clearly has room to grow.

By contrast Sutton’s peak performances are all well in the past, before he climbed into the ring against this opponent. Unlike Ballard he’s not able to help himself by coming up with original material of his own. He still knows his way around the ring, but legs and reflexes are the first things to go and without better songs he can’t wrack up the points to win a decision.

In boxing punching power is the last thing a fighter loses. He may not connect as often, but if they do they can still knock you out. But balladeers like Sutton are more technicians than sluggers and so while the fight is even thus far, Ballard, the challenger, with his more aggressive powerful assault, suddenly looks like the more dangerous fighter stalking his rival around the ring, still a little too untutored to win a title, but increasingly able to start inflicting damage.

As a result Charles Sutton now finds himself on the ropes, covering up and hoping to make it back to his corner to re-group.

And to think, we haven’t even reached the third round yet.


(Visit the Artist page of The Royals for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)