Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published April 24, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

| If this were 1978, Fastball would probably be climbing charts and conquering arenas. Coming on as breezy and crafty as early Cheap Trick, the Texas rock trio plays a straightforward, unself-conscious form of rock-pop that's sharp, crafty and immediately catchy. Highly derivative, too -- and in 1998, where a great pop record has to Mean Something, that's critical suicide. In a musical era that's too smart for what Fastball does, all they have going for them is an "industry buzz" and an opening slot on the Everclear tour. None of which stops "All the Pain Money Can Buy," the band's second album, from being a simple and guilty pleasure; if it sounds like a throwback, it's worth noting that sounding like a throwback in this day and age can be an act of bravery.

The name alone speaks volumes; Fastball -- no curves, no change-ups. Guitarist Miles Zuniga and bassist Tony Scalzo split the songwriting evenly, and both are acolytes of the Church of the Killer Hook, off-handedly whipping up gems like the driving "Sooner or Later," the angst-free and upbeat "Better Than It Was" and the kiss-off "Slow Drag," which closes up its light and lazy blues-pop with some telling "Revolver"-esque soundboard tweaking. Drummer Joey Shuffield has an open, playful style that keeps the moodiest tunes ("Charlie, the Methadone Man") from completely drowning in misery, and both Zuniga and Scalzo have strong, evocative voices; indeed, Zuniga sings in a way that suggests that he could answer any number of obscure discographical questions about Matthew Sweet. Perspective here is crucial, though. What Fastball is at heart is just an above-average bar band, and the skills they display on "All the Pain" are fairly limited ones; when they get too crafty, like on the busy, Latin-styled single "The Way," the soufflé collapses miserably. But Cheap Trick was a bar band once too, and purely in terms of raw enthusiasm, it's fun, disposable pop.

And don't think their record label doesn't know it; Fastball's precisely the sort of band that gets a few hits squeezed out of them, then thrown away like an old sponge (two rock star-fantasy tunes, "Which Way to the Top?" and "Warm Fuzzy Feeling," suggest they might be paying too much attention to their A&R rep). But when the horns kick in on "G.O.D. (Good Old Days)," strong and proud and thoroughly familiar, it's a thrill that's hard to resist. And when Zuniga proclaims on "Fire Escape" that "I can be myself, how 'bout you?" it's obvious that he loves his music more and refuses to apologize for it more than the latest hip techno-blues-folk-afropop atrocity. Pray that the record recoups. After all, "Fastball: Live at Budokan" has a nice ring to it.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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