The Deep End


33 1/3 Records, 2022

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


They used to say rock and roll was a young person’s game—at least until many of the top-grossing touring acts began to qualify for the senior discount. With bands out on the road these days celebrating 40th, 50th and even 60th anniversaries (hi Mick & Keith), what’s a feisty trio of greying ’90s power-poppers to do but deliver an album that speaks honestly to middle-aged concerns while paying musical tribute to the forebears who inspired them?

Cynics—and there are plenty around, even if I’ve got no time for ’em—might regard Fastball as The Band That Wouldn’t Go Away. The proverbial one-album wonders scored big in 1998 with their sophomore release All The Pain That Money Can Buy, delivering a pair of smash hits in the ubiquitous “The Way” (#2 Adult Top 40; #1 Adult Alternative) and the melodious “Out Of My Head” (#3 Adult Top 40, #14 Adult Alternative). After their even-better 2000 follow-up The Harsh Light Of Day inexplicably stiffed on the charts, they moved to Rykodisc for 2004’s Keep Your Wig On before taking a break and regrouping as an indie act for 2009’s Little White Lies.

It would be eight years before the band released new music again, in the guise of 2017’s rousing return to form Step Into Light. The less stirring but equally artful The Help Machine arrived in 2019, and the band occupied the pandemic years by advance-releasing a series of singles exclusively to their Patreon patrons, leading up to this full-album release.

The Deep End in many ways feels like The Help Machine Vol. 2. Once again, singer-songwriter-guitarists Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga trade songs and vocals, harmonizing beautifully with one another and occasionally sharing lead vocals within a single song, while drummer Joey Shuffield and serial sideman Bruce Hughes (bass) drive the rhythm section. Once again, Steve Berlin (Los Lobos, Tragically Hip, Jackie Greene) produces most of the tunes, with the band self-producing on three. And once again, the songs meld early-rock guitar-band homage with ’80s sonic flair and ’90s indie-rock snark, a cornucopia of influences that resolves into tasty, propulsive power-pop. 

The opening pair of Zuniga’s “Soundtrack” and Scalzo’s “Electric Cool-Aide” offer a blast of pure nostalgia, a pair of veteran songwriters reminiscing about why and how they got into music in the first place and reliving some early memories. While the woozy, sepia-toned “Soundtrack” makes for a slumbery opener—raising the same questions as on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 The Help Machine about sequencing—it offers the relative novelty of the two singers trading roles mid-song, lead to harmony and harmony to lead. The rather Fountains-Of-Wayne-ish "Cool-Aide” follows with sharply drawn images and real bounce, not to mention further evidence of how each of the band’s two frontmen support and enhance one another’s songs with strong harmonies. (“Soundtrack” also name-drops Candy-O, which is never a bad thing.)

Slotting “Real Good Problem To Have” third is another sequencing head-scratcher; it’s an unremarkable, filler-type tune that accents its melody with an ’80s synth tone that could come off as either sassy or annoying, depending on your mood. Slotting this in around number eight would make a lot more sense. Then we slow things down further, though this turns out to be good news since Scalzo’s voice is well-suited to a melancholy number like the explicitly nostalgic Scalzo-Zuniga co-write “Growing Growing Gone,” a song about how the places that you loved when you were younger grow and change until you no longer recognize them. There’s a sadness in that but also a sense of inevitability, because nothing stays the same forever.

Zuniga pens another of his patented haunted/spooky numbers in “House At The Edge Of The World.” I can imagine them all being collected one day as the soundtrack to a dark psychological drama; in the context of Fastball, they serve to add texture and variety to their albums. Scalzo’s “I Only Remember The Good” follows in perfect counterpoint, relentless optimism set to a stutter-stepping rockabilly beat.

Next up, the Zuniga-Scalzo co-write “Andrea” made me laugh out loud, a clever and very 2022 story-song about seeking out your high school crush at a years-later reunion. “Seat At The Table” is a typically melodic Scalzo number about someone who’s hungry to be a player, possibly in a certain recent US administration: “But if you’re looking for a seat at the table / Just take a good look around / At just who’s sitting down / They’re all delusional and very unstable…”

The Deep End, which feels a little soft musically up to this point, closes out with a strong one-two punch. “Infatuation” features a finally-fired-up Zuniga doing his best 1962 rockabilly, channeling Roy Orbison on the verses and Paul McCartney on the choruses on this simple but toe-tapping 2:34 blast. Then closer “Chump Change” finds Scalzo delivering the album’s sole full-out rocker, whose hard-charging pace harks back to the group’s play-as-fast-as-you-can debut album Make Your Mama Proud.

Much like on The Help Machine, the sequencing on The Deep End feels just right in some places and baffling in others. The production similarly feels mostly solid but occasionally uneven; for example, the sonics on “Seat At The Table” feel like they lose sharpness whenever the whole band is playing, and Scalzo’s lead vocal feels too low in the mix on “Chump Change.” 

These are nits, of course; the bigger picture is that The Deep End simply feels less urgent than either The Help Machine or (especially) Step Into Light. Maybe it’s something about the moment we’re in, or maybe it’s just part of the natural evolution of the two songwriters driving this bus, but this album feels more like a holding pattern than anything new and vital. Having said that, The Deep End offers a familiar taste of everything that makes Fastball an enduring act: sharp lyrics, superb harmonies, hooky choruses, and the perpetual quest for the next great song. Long may they run.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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