Fastball's breakthrough hit, "The Way," which appeared on All the Pain Money Can Buy, was easily one of 1998's guiltiest pleasures. A memorable tune with a sweet arrangement, the single was about as good as something can get without nearing greatness.
Now, with the band's well-constructed but largely uninspiring follow-up, it becomes increasingly clear that the members of Fastball fall into the same bag. Their competence remains beyond reproach, their songwriting and production ideas have grown more ambitious, but something crucial is still missing. The opening track, "This Is Not My Life," is a perfect example; producer Julian Raymond and the band pull out all the sonic stops, as compressed guitar chugs out of one speaker and Miles Zuniga's treated voice slices through the other. No, the song itself isn't great, but the production carries the day.
Elsewhere, Zuniga's "Dark Street" and bassist Tony Scalzo's simple, driving "Morning Star" also score points. Zuniga's songs tend to sport more soul than Scalzo's, emphasizing rhythmic elements and energized by the guitarist's Lennon-influenced vocals. Scalzo, quite frankly, is not a very compelling singer, and though his songs sound clean, there's not much to care about beneath the surface.
And that, sadly, is what Fastball's material lacks: depth. Its lyrics offer little that's dynamic or artful, so what are listeners really left with? Decent melodies, to be sure, and nicely produced tracks, along with an occasional echo from the past. On "You're an Ocean," the first single, Billy Preston plays bluesy riffs on a tinny piano, followed by a guitar solo that's the spittin' image of a Jackson Browne cut, circa 1977. "Love Is Expensive and Free" adds a taste of mariachi brass, while the verse to "Wind Me Up" harks back to mid-'70s Supertramp. But deep down, the music and lyrics rarely match up, and few songs establish a mood for long enough to hang your heart on. It may sell, but it's certainly not the way.