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I suspect that the first time Fastball assembled itself in one of its three members' garages, the sparks flew. It's a cinch to see the guys knocking back a couple of cold ones toward the end of a particularly stifling Austin scorcher while the Replacements and Elvis Costello and Big Star records play. Then one of them--probably plucky bassist Tony Scalzo--tells the others that they, in fact, could probably do a not-bad job of power-pop, and that, if they left out all the scruffy and unsavory elements of their heroes' stuff, they could probably sell a few hundred thousand records and quit hanging drywall or washing cars or flame-broiling Whoppers. Accurate or not, that's as exciting as the Fastball story gets. For here we have a band as competent, as skilled, and as commercial as they come. Never mind that All the Pain Money Can Buy, the band's 1998 breakthrough sophomore album, contained a half-dozen radio gems (you, no doubt, remember the vaguely Latin "The Way"), or that the new The Harsh Light of Day has at least as many: This is music engineered to move units, bloodless and careful to the nth degree.

Not that that's necessarily a criticism. I sort of love The Harsh Light of Day, in the same way that I can appreciate a nice armchair or an especially crisp head of iceberg lettuce. But the musician in me (and, indeed, the human being in me) dies a little death every time "You're an Ocean"--which, despite its relatively zany instrumentation, sounds like the credit-running soundtrack to Hill Street Blues 2K: Blues Strike Back--sinks its lab-coated hooks into my gasping-for-breath brain. Or when "Wind Me Up"--which sounds like the same for Growing Pains: The Postgraduate Years--unfurls its litany of minor sevenths and bad-Morricone sonic accoutrements. The craziest part (and the part that makes me admire Fastball in a Mark Rothko sort of way) is that these songs are so middle-of-the-road, they'll probably fail to sell like the hotcakes they're so clearly modeled after.

For better or for worse, the '90s made niche markets out of all of us, and this kind of please-everyone pap doesn't really make the fans it did in the '80s, when guys like Huey Lewis rode songs about billiards and shit into the sunset and got to hang out with Michael J. Fox just for doing it. Sure, Matchbox 20 (ahem, Twenty) and their (awe-inspiringly) less distinctive little brothers Nine Days and 3 Doors Down are selling millions on a similarly spice-free recipe, but Fastball lack the menacing/endearing mid-20s snark those guys practice in the bathroom mirror every morning. They're just--gulp--nice guys who are sick of their day jobs. Damn those sparks. And long live Fastball.

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