Fastball strikes one for the charts

Fastball, with Darling, Sapphire Supper Club, April 30, 1998

Fastball, the Texas trio rapidly zipping up the Billboard singles charts thanks to their bossa nova radio-charmer, "The Way," is the out-of-nowhere band most likely to lure lapsed believers back to the Church of Guitar Pop. They don't take themselves too seriously, don't glory in gimmickry and don't come off as dour, detached and likely to spend off-hours sticking needles in their arms.

Instead, Fastball applies bar-band chops, undeniably infectious songcrafting and sweet harmonies to tunes soaked with a kaleidoscope of pure pop influences, including Matthew Sweet, Cheap Trick, Squeeze, Jellyfish and the Posies. "I grew up listening to Elvis Costello," says bassist Tony Scalzo, 33, who alternates singer-songwriter duties with guitarist Mike Zuniga. "On the other hand, I listened to punk-rock and heavy metal, and me and my brother used to get drunk and sing Willie Nelson songs over at my grandma's house. I also played classical piano when I was a kid and played in the school band."

That pop influence is worn on the sleeve of their radio hit. Imagine a hokey ditty from south of the border as interpreted by the Beatles (see "Besame Mucho") with a touch of inspiration from '80s Brit-pop band XTC and Costello out front on vocals. Throw in a channel-changing audio montage at the start that simulates a flip of the switch from AM tinniness to FM resonance and you've got "The Way."

The band formed four years ago as Magneto when drummer Joey Shuffield introduced Zuniga to California-bred Scalzo. They switched their name to Fastball shortly before the release of their poorly selling debut album, 1996's "Make Your Mama Proud." Scalzo was determined not to repeat any past mistakes on their second album. "Last time, we were going to go to radio and we never did," he says. "After doing so poorly, we were thinking it's just time to get in there and do the second record before we get dropped."

Although "All the Pain Money Can Buy" contains at least a dozen pop gems, it was the success of "The Way" that led to the trio's recent appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." The show helped to swell the ranks of Fastball's guitar-pop congregation, but it remains to be seen if they can produce another pop-hit homer. Regardless, they play a hell of a game.


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