Austin, Texas, trio Fastball fell victim to bad timing in the late ‘90s. Their 1998 gem of a single, “The Way”, was the decade’s best Elvis Costello impression, and propelled their sophomore album, All the Pain Money Can Buy to platinum status. But the band broke through as ‘90s mainstream alt-rock (a contradiction?) gasped its last, only to be replaced by lunkheaded nu-metal; Fastball’s roots-pop sound was frozen out of rock-radio airplay. Now, in 2004, the stars have aligned themselves properly for the band. Alt-rock is back, with the likes of Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand driving the final nail in nu-metal’s coffin. Meanwhile, Fastball’s latest, Keep Your Wig On, is being released by Rykodisc and the band—singer/guitarists Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga and drummer Joey Shuffield—is free to do its own thing for an independent label. You won’t hear Fastball coming out of your radio, but you may want to hear them coming out of your CD player speakers.
Fastball’s chief songwriters, Zuniga and Scalzo, have always been eagle-eyed (and -eared) storytellers and excellent pop craftsmen (hence the earlier Costello comparison); the trend continues on Keep Your Wig On. “Airstream”, co-written by Zuniga and NRBQ’s Al Anderson, is a slice of laid-back roots-pop, chronicling a wandering soul seeing the sights in his titular RV (“When it gets too familiar, I’ll be gone,” Zuniga promises). And is it ironic or clever to record a roots-rock song about a guy who refused to put down roots? You decide. If you need a sonic frame of reference, it sounds a little like Pete Yorn, himself another roots-rocker who’s keen with a pen and paper. The upbeat, jammy “‘Til I Get it Right” boasts the album’s best, truest line: “Then they play that song I love / And I feel like I just can’t lose”. Damn, I love that line. And that’s a song about a broken relationship! These guys are in a good mood to be doing their own thing.
I mentioned pop craftsmanship earlier; Fastball recruited a few producers who know a thing or two about such construction—Mike McCarthy (who has worked with fellow Texans Spoon) and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Under McCarthy’s watch, the band tosses in some bright horns on the rough-edged “Lou-ee, Lou-ee”, a barrelhouse piano on the bluesy lament “I Get High”, and drum loops on “Our Misunderstanding” (co-produced by Jeff Trott). Schlesinger’s contributions number only two, but are keyed into his sensibility. “Someday” is a fair Beatles approximation, and the loose-limbed mariachi-inflected (!) closer, “Red Light” should be expected from a guy with Schlesinger’s eclectic taste (“Hung Up On You”, anyone?). In fact, the album could have used a little more Schlesinger—the middle third of Keep Your Wig On sounds good, but veers into didacticism. To wit, I dig guest musician Matt Hubbard’s harmonica on “Perfect World”, but I’m choking on lines like “Nobody’s gonna solve your problems / It’s all up to you”. That’s my only beef, though.
It’s rare to see a band “survive” having a massive hit single and evolve into a career act (Nada Surf is trying, but the alt-rock highway is littered with the carcasses of the likes of say, the Toadies), but it looks like Fastball may have avoided the curse. It’s a shame the band released a greatest-hits album back in 2002 (the premature Painting the Corners covers all of three albums) because much, if not most, of Keep Your Wig On deserves a slot in the band’s greatest-hits canon.