For a while in the late ‘90s, it seemed that some radio stations existed solely to play “The Way,” Semisonic’s “Closing Time” and “All Star” by Smash Mouth.
Oddly enough, Smash Mouth -without a doubt the least interesting band of the three—rode a string of successful singles into the new millennium, and the other two quickly earned a One-Hit Wonder tag, and disappeared from the airwaves. But, while Semisonic made one more record (1999’s overlooked All About Chemistry) and disbanded, Fastball has soldiered on. And though their records haven’t made the same kind of commercial impact as 1998’s All The Pain Money Can Buy), their songwriting hasn’t lost a step.
The albums that followed—The Harsh Light of Day (2000), Keep Your Wig On (2004) and Little White Lies (2009), as well as their hard-charging debut Make Your Mama Proud (1996)—offer an array of expertly crafted pop songs. Over the course of their career, guitarist Miles Zuniga and bassist Tony Scalzo have shared songwriting duties, each one tinkering within a multitude of styles. So, it won’t surprise anyone paying attention that Step Into Light is a diverse, engaging record from one of pop’s most tenacious bands.
Generally the more radio-friendly of Fastball’s two songwriters, Scalzo contributes melodic gems ranging from the wobbly “We’re On Our Way” to the singalong “Just Another Dream.” His “I Will Never Let You Down,” a fine entry in the I’m-no-good-but-I-love-you genre, captures the rascally appeal of the lyrics (“I’m not too pretty/once you reach the nitty gritty…. But I will never let you down”) with a sweet, simple melody fit for the big last ditch public serenade in the third act of a romantic comedy. And someone ought to get Katy Perry working on a cover of “Best Friend,” an unfettered slice of pure pop with a soaring chorus.
Though Zuniga’s songs lack the theatricality of Scalzo’s, they consistently have a scrappy, dusty cowboy boot charm; listening to “Step Into Light,” one can practically smell the campfire, and “Love Comes In Waves” has a rollicking, stomping backbeat. And his delicate, fingerpicked “Behind The Sun,” with its haunting opening lines, “No one knows me/No one knows what I’ve done,” sounds like a cover of a newly-unearthed Nick Drake song, is the album’s standout track.
In fact, the record comes off as a reintroduction of voices, both literal (Scalzo’s sassy, blasting, upper-chest voice in “Secret Agent Love” hearkens back to some of the band’s best moments, and Zuniga’s weathered voice invests his songs with real gravity) and artistic. Fastball’s commitment to craft and feeling, without sacrificing fun or humor make Step Into Light another welcome entry into the unjustly overlooked catalog of this enduring, charismatic group.