The Help Machine

Fastball

Independent release, 2019

http://www.fastballtheband.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/20/2019

First impressions can be tricky. Sometimes they’re borne out by the rest of an experience and sometimes they’re way off the mark. The source of the disconnect is often expectations.

Fastball’s first-in-seven-years 2017 release Step Into Light was their strongest album since their 1998-2000 heyday, an exuberant set brimming with energy and brio. The trio of Miles Zuniga (vocals, guitars, keys) Tony Scalzo (vocals, guitars, keys) and Joey Shuffield (drums) again demonstrated their mastery of catchy, melodic guitar rock embellished with terrific vocal harmonies and plenty of attitude, while interspersing their power-pop confections with more musically diverse character studies.

My first impression of follow-up The Help Machine—based on the first four tracks—was that the boys had lost some of their fire. Opener “Friend Or Foe,” a loping mid-tempo Zuniga number with a rather sing-songy melody, doesn’t leave much of an impression. Then Scalzo steps up with the sunnily sardonic “White Collar,” a half-hearted shot at a too-easy target, pleasant enough but not one of his best. Next up, “Holding The Devil’s Hand” is all atmosphere, space and tension, while “Redeemed” dials the guitars up a notch for a snarky rejoinder to a proselytizing acquaintance. Both are engaging enough, but feel more like digressions than foundations of an album, the sort of thing you’d slot in around track seven or eight, rather than up front. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

And there it is—the real story. By the time I’d made it through the entire album twice, I realized my first impression was all wrong. What’s different about this album is not that Fastball has mellowed, but that they and producer Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) have more or less flipped the band’s typical approach to run order, pushing the catchier, more up-tempo numbers that feel like the heart of this particular set of songs into the five-through-eight slots.

Scalzo’s “All Gone Fuzzy,” sitting at track five, in fact feels like a prototypical Fastball album opener, with Shuffield delivering a thumping backbeat that Zuniga and Scalzo decorate with ringing guitars and superb harmonies. Next up, Zuniga’s title track initially furthers the “they’ve mellowed” impression with its airy, pulsing synth-and-vocals opening, until the rhythm section and guitars enter at the chorus and you realize that, despite its rather subdued vibe, this is one of the catchiest tunes the band has ever recorded.

Zuniga’s “Surprise Surprise” feels more familiar, a crunchy-guitars thumper with plenty of drive, a tight, bruising solo, and rich harmonies, leading nicely into Scalzo’s snappy honky-tonk plea “The Girl You Pretended To Be.” Track nine, the appropriately moody “I Go South,” is where things finally start to feel like they’re probably where they should be. The album finishes strong with the one-two punch of Scalzo’s tart, thrumming rocker “Doesn’t It Make You Feel Small” followed by Zuniga’s sweet Tex-Mex country-blues “Never Say Never.”

First impressions aside, this is another strong outing from a band that seems to be enjoying a musical renaissance as it moves into its 25th year. The Help Machine offers another engaging set of punchy, playful numbers fueled by a potent brew of sweet melodic hooks and salty, hard-won wisdom. The run order feels counter-intuitive to me, but I’ve got no argument with the songs themselves.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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