Step Into Light

Fastball

33 1/3, 2017

http://www.fastballtheband.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/30/2017

Sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve missed a band until you catch sight of them again, like a former lover walking down the street still looking oh so fine after all these years.

Not that Fastball ever went away; for a band that’s done perpetual battle with the “one-hit wonder” label (courtesy of 1998 smash “The Way”), they’ve been remarkably consistent over the years, still fielding their original power-trio lineup of Miles Zuniga (vocals, guitars), Tony Scalzo (vocals, bass, keys, guitars) and Joey Shuffield (drums) and still making punchy, reliably engaging power-pop featuring ringing guitar riffs and earworm melodies. Their debut Make Your Mama Proud appeared in 1996, followed by All The Pain Money Can Buy (1998), The Harsh Light Of Day (2000, and still in my estimation an overlooked gem), Keep Your Wig On (2004) and Sweet Little Lies (2009). The first three came out on Hollywood Records, the fourth on Rykodisc, with Sweet Little Lies and now Step Into Light both self-released, the latter crowdfunded on PledgeMusic.

Whatever you might choose to make of that trajectory, the fact is that Fastball has never sounded better than they do here. Step Into Light is a terrifically appealing blast of tight, buoyant guitar-pop enriched by the group’s characteristic intelligence and wit, making this album in every respect a worthy successor to the string of superb releases that preceded it. Zuniga and Scalzo remain a masterful dynamic duo of singer-songwriters, trading off lead vocals when they aren’t sharing them, voices meshing as naturally and vibrantly as any of the greats.

The key to Fastball’s art, though, is Scalzo and Zuniga are superb craftsmen, constructing tight, consistently appealing tunes that are both highly approachable and lovably quirky. Hearing new Fastball music is like meeting an old friend again for the first time, knowing already how it’s going to go: the joys and pains and deep, familiar, comfortable feeling of connection that lies just ahead.

One thing’s clear from the start: Shuffield, Zuniga and Scalzo may have added some grey and a few wrinkles but they have not lost a step musically; to the contrary, this album is as animated and upbeat as any they’ve ever issued. Opener “We’re On Our Way” delivers rippling energy with a thrumming, driving rhythm punctuated by powerhouse fills from Shuffield, the verses adding feisty keyboard accents and harmonies, the trio reclaiming yet again the sense of urgent momentum behind many of their strongest tunes. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Best Friend” offers an appealing change of pace arrangement-wise, big and airy with some ’80s flavoring in its precisely layered guitar lines, warm synths and supple, catchy melody. Then “Behind The Sun” changes things up yet again, a slight, rather Beatlesque acoustic number whose misanthropic narrator is feeling lonely and guilty about some undefined bad behavior (“No one knows me / No one knows what I’ve done”).

Just when things could start to feel a little downbeat, first single “I Will Never Let You Down” comes along and breaks the mood wide open, a buoyant, endlessly catchy tune with a sunny, warbly guitar line running through it. Scalzo’s earnest lead vocal nails a lyric where our narrator is trying to regain lost ground with a lover, basically saying “I’m only a man,” so cut me some slack because at the end of the day I’ll always be there for you. Is he for real or just talking a good game? Scalzo sings it like he means it while leaving the real answer delightfully ambiguous.

The album gains momentum through its second act like a medicine ball rolling downhill. The hyperactive rhythm section returns for the surging “Love Comes In Waves,” achieving an almost punky thrash on its shouted choruses as our anxious nebbish of a narrator realizes he’s in way over his head: “On again, off again / I finally said I gotta be free / But I know it’s not the end of it / She worked some kind of voodoo on me.” Still, the best part of the song is the way the vocalists (Zuniga on lead and Scalzo on harmonies here) give each other space and complement one another’s every move.

Next up, the title track offers a laidback, sunny West Coast vibe with thrumming organ, acoustic guitars and Zuniga and Scalzo again harmonizing wonderfully. “Just Another Dream” pops things back into fourth gear with great energy as Scalzo narrates a dream of “Climbing up a tree / To make it to the moon.” The fast, furious and suitably exotic instrumental “Tanzania” follows, an unexpected twist with Zuniga and Shuffield’s frenetic surf stylings offset by Scalzo’s Twilight Zone Hammond work.

“Secret Agent Love” keeps the pedal to the floor, a surging rocker with a big, bounding beat and tons of retro flourishes and nods. It’s as it ends at 2:47 that you realize there’s only one song over three minutes here; these are tasty, bite-sized morsels that don’t waste a moment and never overstay their welcome. “Hung Up” offers all this and the sort of bouncy sass you associate with Fountains Of Wayne.

If you were wondering if Step Into Light would include one of the odd, off-kilter numbers Fastball often slips in, here it is in the form of the mysterious, hypnotic “Lillian Gish,” about a “a half-remembered dream” of the actress that feels more like a nightmare: “Loneliness, it can’t get more lonely than this… I’ve been betrayed but I sleep in the bed I’ve made.” Closer “Frenchy And The Punk” finishes things up in light-hearted fashion, a droll in-joke that finds the title pals “waxing nostalgic” while musing that “Life is hard, but then again, life is easy too.”

Step Into Light is a welcome return from a band whose classicist craftsmanship never gets old; it’s timeless, riff-centric power pop that sparkles with intelligence and artfulness even as it’s begging your cranky knees to get up and dance. 

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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