What do Fountains Of Wayne, All-American Rejects and Wheatus all have in common? Apart from the fact that they’re all North American groups, it would appear that they are also commercially-minded pop rock bands who are perpetually struggling to shake the ‘one hit wonder’ label. Fellas, say hello to Fastball.
You have to go all the way back to 1998 to find Fastball’s breakthrough. It came in the form of My Way, which was a massive run-away hit for the Austin, Texas trio. Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo, the songwriting force in Fastball, now bring us Keep Your Wig On in an apparent attempt to peddle the artistic rather than the radio-friendly. “The best thing about it is, we’ve already been through the ‘having a hit single’ phase”, says Zuniga. Isn’t that just a euphemism for “Give us a chance, please!”?
As it turns out, Keep Your Wig On isn’t exactly the pop shambles I expected. Brief opener Shortwave certainly sets the tone for the subsequent hour or so, using hooky piano and some rather catchy harmonies to fair effect. Louie Louie ups the cheese factor considerably, whilst not losing the plot entirely. In fact, as far as toe-tapping pop rock goes, it’s pretty good.
Problems, however, raise their varied ugly heads on Drifting Away: Despite being a well-written, professionally-finished track, it just sounds far too much like a rehash. Bands like Canadian veterans Sloan specialise in similar music; the difference being that Sloan tracks embed themselves in your conscious, whereas Fastball lack that certain je ne sais qoui. It could be the lack of conviction in the lyrical content, it could be the polished production. I can’t quite put my finger on the problem, which seems to be a common trait among so-called one hit wonders.
Airstream, again, is pleasant enough, put passes by without so much as a whimper, lacking any kind of notable emotional content. Music to score Malcolm In The Middle, you might say. Our Misundertanding is able to rectify the anonymity crisis to a degree, smoothly blending suitably soppy content with a really quite effective melodic progression.
I have been known to have a soft spot for good pop rock, however, so I’m not going down the more-alternative-than-thou road if it can be helped. I Get High, for instance, sees the Texan trio roll out their very best Randy Newman impressions. To their credit, it’s an impeccable match, complete with “quirky” lyrics and salt-of-the-earth melodies. I freely admit that I love this song – it’s just that it is quite clearly Randy Newman’s territory. Fastball, as such, score no points for originality, neither here nor anywhere else on the album.
The second half plugs away admirably, swaying fairly convincingly between choppy ska (‘Til I Get It Right), country (Mercenary Girl) and obligatory ballad (Falling Upstairs). They even find the time to shake out some salsa in the form of Red Light. For an album that lacks any kind of instinctive or visceral impact, it certainly is eclectic.
Keep Your Wig On is, in many respects, a good album. The trio, unfortunately, skimp on that x-factor criterion that makes their peers stand out from the crowd: Sloan, Randy Newman, Pete Yorn and Matthew Good to name a few. Perhaps Fastball should have strived to have been a little deeper, a little more sincere. Keep Your Wig On is a fun way to spend an hour, but you aren’t going to miss it when it ends.