The eighth release in i-94 Records’ Detroit covers series is an absolute belter. On this 2023 7”, rock ‘n’ soul duo The BellRays take The Temptations’ classic ‘Ball of Confusion’ and shake it up rather dramatically. Coupled with their self-penned (and previously unreleased) ‘I Fall Down’, it results in a fiery double whammy that’s a great showcase for a massively underrated act.
‘I Fall Down’ is classic BellRays. From its opening beat and huge, ringing guitar chords, it sets up their blend of soul inflected garage rock with ease. The opening verse suggests something very strong, but once the tune explodes with a strong melody that sounds like a nod Boston bar room heroes Watts and something grubbier from decades gone by, it flexes plenty of retro muscle. The live sound of the recording really brings out the best in the band, but the great music is no match for the featured voice. Lisa Kekaula is on fire, wailing through a soul inspired rock vocal that mixes the huge hearted sound of ‘Racine’ era Sass Jordan with something that’s simultaneously a little scratchier, but also inspired by a couple of Ike & Tina jams. The way she soars over the garage rock guitar lines sets up something that’s at once a massive contrast, yet at the same time sounds hugely natural, making it obvious why The BellRays are loved by those “in the know”, and armed with a deceptively simple chorus hook, she’s able to really sell the song right from first listen.
No matter how good that is, though, it’s no match for this 7”s main feature. Written by Motown in-house men Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, its socio-political message struck a chord with the tumultuous times when The Tempations’ single was released in 1970, but the track has continued to thrive via great recordings from artists as disparate as Go West, Anthrax and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. The BellRays’ version has a lot to live up to, but thankfully, it’s more than a match for the many who’ve previously taken it on. The guitar riff has been hardened considerably, with Bob Vennum attacking the rhythmic chords as if he’s playing on an old Dictators record, whilst a few howling leads come much closer to Stooges recordings circa 1970. Augmented by a fuzzy bass sound and some rigid drumming, there’s little here you would ever connect with peak Motown. A much more familiar melody bleeds through an impassioned vocal, and Lisa roars the message of protest in a manner that makes it as relevant as ever, tapping even further into the gritty tones present on ‘I Fall Down’, helping to make this one half of a perfect pair.
With these two songs, The BellRays show why they’re one of the greatest purveyors of garage rock with a soulful twist. These very natural recordings will not only thrill their fans, but other listeners too. The familiarity of a good cover version has the potential to gain traction outside of the obvious fan bases, and this ‘Ball of Confusion’ is very much the kind of raw take that’ll appeal to garage rock fans everywhere. No matter which way you approach it, this is an unmissable slab of vinyl.