Fastball have always been -- to dust off a worn but sadly apt cliche -- their own worst enemies, victims both of their songwriting style and of their early success.
One day when I was 10 years old I was cycling home from school and hit a patch of gravel. The bike kicked out from under me, my right knee made painful contact with the pavement, and, most distressingly, my Discman flew from my backpack and popped open, disgorging Fastball's All the Pain Money Can Buy as it slid merrily along. Alas, the disc, like my knee, was badly scratched. The very next day I limped into the local Sam Goody and plopped down my allowance. That's how obsessed I was with that album and with its two megahit singles, "The Way" (one of the finest songs of the late-'90s) and "Out of My Head". A few years later I was one of the (very) few who bought their follow up, The Harsh Light of Day, before I, like the rest of the music-buying public, lost track of them entirely.
But Fastball, unnoticed as they may have been, didn't break up, and didn't stop making music, either. In 2004 they released Keep Your Wig On. Now, five years on and a full decade since the apex of their fame, they're bringing us Little White Lies. I know that kid with the scraped-up knee would have loved this new album, just as he loved All the Pain Money Can Buy. But I can't help feeling this gets to the heart of Fastball's continued lack of success. They're just a bit too talented of songwriters for their own good, but not quite ambitious enough to be all that interesting.
A case in point: album opener "All I Was Looking For Was You", which is, on the face of it, a perfectly constructed pop song. It has a catchy hook, it flows pleasingly from verse to bridge to chorus, and the lyrics are earnest, if not particularly original. ("I ran my ship into the ground / chasing some high and lonesome sound" is not exactly poetry of the highest order.) But after a few listens, its construction actually begins to grate. It is simply too radio-friendly, too pretty, too planned. A number of songs ("Rampart Street", "How Did I Get Here?", "We'll Always Have Paris") are similarly saccharine.
To be fair, there are a number of songs here on which Fastball stretch their music just a bit further. These are the most successful offerings on the CD. "The Malcontent (Modern World)" is just unsettling enough to be interesting. "Angelie" is a boozy waltz with a goofy accordion line. The title track, "Little White Lies", is far and away the best song on the disc: melodic but muscular and sporting a genuinely funky breakdown.
It would not be fair to call Little White Lies bad, and there's a part of me that is quite distressed by its flaws. But Fastball don't offer much of a reason here for us to not simply spin All the Pain Money Can Buy. A decade on, that failing means everything.