When musicologists add this year's chapter to the history of rock, they'll talk about the proliferation of rock-rappers, pre-packaged boytoys, and scantily-clad teen nymphs. Thanks to Fastball, however, 2000 will actually end on a high note. The Harsh Light of Day picks up where 1998's platinum-plus All the Pain Money Can Buy left off. It's an intoxicating album with a depth and emotional range that broadens with each listen.
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With Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo evenly dividing songwriting and lead vocal duties, and drummer Joey Shuffield supplying the laser-guided groove, Fastball's 1998 breakthrough All The Pain Money Can Buy propelled the group into the big leagues. Led by the smash singles "The Way" and "Out of My Head," the album notched platinum-plus sales and earned critical praise from all quarters.
Today, instead of merely trying to replicate the hit-fueled sound of their previous disc, the band members stride forward on their new album The Harsh Light of Day. "We now have the resources to stretch our ideas further," says Scalzo. "I like the word 'expansive,' because it implies that you're still true to your original roots while growing into new areas. It's not a departure…it's building on a foundation." "Instead of tailoring the music for short attention spans," adds Zuniga, "we tried to make an album that holds up well to extensive listening…kind of cinematic, where you notice new themes entering the frame each time you see the film."
Like its predecessor, The Harsh Light of Day was produced by Julian Raymond and Fastball. Through 12 songs, it reaffirms the group's knack for edgy, post-modern pop while also exploring greater stylistic diversity. Debut single/video "You're An Ocean"-featuring Billy Preston on piano-introduces an album that spans guitar-driven mania ("This Is Not My Life," "Wind Me Up," "Morning Star" and "Time"), stark introspection ("Goodbye," "Whatever Gets You On") and haunting ballads (including the bittersweet gem "Funny How It Fades Away").
A pair of back-to-back songs-one each by Scalzo and Zuniga-illustrate the group's broadening horizons. Sporting a mindbending mariachi vibe, "Love Is Expensive and Free" shows Scalzo's songwriting extending well beyond rock 'n' roll. The song features elegant guitar work by special guest Brian Setzer, as well as outstanding traditional instrumentation by Jose Hernandez and his orchestra.
With its moody twilight sonics, "Vampires" finds Zuniga discovering new territory as well…but just don't ask him what the lyrics actually mean: "I'm not sure of that myself," he laughs. "I tried to make the song more specific, but I realized that I was lopping off its legs. So I decided to let the lyrics reflect the dreamy vibe of the music. I guess I just like to romanticize about being hung over and sleeping late."
The group strikes a delicate balance between pushing the envelope and simply letting each song speak for itself. "We don't shackle our sound in the pursuit of success," says Shuffield. "All three of us are drawn to rock and melodic, pop-oriented stuff-along with a stiff dose of heavy metal. By doing what comes naturally, we can add other elements and still retain the spark that made a song idea sound so cool in the first place."
The broad scope of The Harsh Light… reflects an extended recording schedule. "We were in the studio for three months," notes Zuniga. "For some bands, that's barely enough time to stock the liquor cabinet," he jokes, "but for us that's a long time." The Harsh Light… also benefits from massive contributions by producer Julian Raymond and the group's versatile studio cohort Bennett Salvay: "Bennett arranged strings and played keyboards of all persuasions," says Zuniga. "He was on our last record, and he made an even bigger impact on this album."
Aided by a growing "extended family" of musicians, the core of Fastball has remained unchanged since the group first formed in late 1994. When Austin native and ex Wild Seeds drummer Shuffield introduced Zuniga (from Laredo, TX) to Scalzo, a refugee from California's Orange County punk maelstrom. Based in Austin, the group built a strong regional following before signing a deal with Hollywood Records. Their 1996 debut Make Your Mama Proud set the stage for their wildly successful 1998 sophomore album.
Fueled by "The Way" (which dominated the #1 spot on Billboard's Modern Rock Chart for seven weeks and was a top 5 hit on Billboard's Top 40 Chart), "Out of My Head," (a top 10 hit on Billboard's Top 40 Chart and a top 10 hit at Adult Top 40 for 29 weeks) and "Fire Escape," All the Pain Money Can Buy (which stayed on Billboard's Top 200 Album Chart for a year) catapulted Fastball to national acclaim. The group earned two Grammy nominations ("Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals" for "The Way" and "Best Long Form Video" for "They Wanted The Highway") and an MTV Award nomination as "Best New Artist." Treks with Everclear, Goo Goo Dolls, Sugar Ray, Marcy Playground, and the 1998 H.O.R.D.E. tour confirmed Fastball's big-time arrival.
The group was surprised by the huge success. "We never set out to be a radio band," admits Shuffield. "We simply wanted to make music that we could be proud of-sales be damned. Miles and Tony just happen to write tunes that lots of people can really sink their teeth into. Now, the stakes are a little higher, but we still feel the same way as before: we need to be happy with our music before we can expect other people to like it"
The Harsh Light of Day encapsulates a recurring theme in Fastball's music: the willingness to take chances and rush headlong into the unknown. "Like that old adage says, 'It's better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all," nods Scalzo. "You need to embrace that element of risk, rather than run away from it."
Find out for yourself why Fastball has established a well-deserved reputation for taking creative risks…and in turn, offering great musical rewards. Listen and let The Harsh Light of Day come streaming in.
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