Fastball: All The Pain Money Can Buy (Omnivore Recordings)

Austin trio Fastball enjoyed tremendous success in the late 1990s, during the very brief time when melody–loving alternative rock bands with a singer/songwriter élan enjoyed both critical and commercial success. It was a well-deserved victory for a band that had paid its dues and had its share of professional disappointments. Led by songwriters Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga, the trio was running on fumes in 1997 when they began recording their second album, All The Pain Money Can Buy. This Omnivore reissue pays tribute to that album on its 20thanniversary, offering a handful of bonus tracks and a critical reevaluation of a record that is probably much better than people would expect.

Even though Zuniga and Scalzo would become lauded as excellent songwriters, it wasn’t always easy going, as it seemed their careers were dogged by false starts and disappointment. Zuniga’s first band, Big Car, showed great promise, but an unhappy recording experience and label ineptitude resulted in the band being stillborn upon the release of their lone album. Big Car’s drummer Joey Shuffield continued to work with Zuniga, and soon their friend Tony Scalzo soon joined the duo. Considering their popularity, it wasn’t surprising that a record deal with major-label Hollywood Records soon followed. Unfortunately, their debut album, Make Your Mama Proud, was plagued with the same problems that had proved fatal to Big Car, and the album simply sank like a stone, irrespective of the kudos it received in the few publications that covered it. The trio expected to be dropped, only to be surprised that they had found favor in the eyes of the label executives, who quickly got them back into the studio.

At some point, the trio realized their problem:  the pop–punk songs that they were making didn’t feel particularly authentic, and with them all being in their thirties, there was an awkwardness that was undeniable and distracting. Realizing they had one final chance to make a record using a comfortable budget, they decided to make a grand album with a more mature and nuanced approach. When Scalizo showed up in the studio with a demo of “Out Of My Head,” a mellow, chilled out ballad that bore almost no relation to anything the band had done before, it was perfectly clear that this new direction was the right move.

Indeed, All The Pain Money Can Buy is a fantastic album. It’s the sound of adulthood; furthermore, it is the sound of it unashamed adulthood. Their newfound sense of self resulted in midtempo ballads and easy rockers.  The pop-punk guitar rock that had defined their previous recordings was gone, with the electric piano and keyboard now taking center stage, adding a bluesy flourish that made their sound more distinct. This was the sound of music for white-collar working people gathering on a Friday night at an upscale bar or at tasteful parties held in newly bought homes owned by young people enjoying professional life and upward mobility. Inoffensive? Sanitized and commercialized? Not really. That’s the great lie about popular music––just because it might not appeal to everyone’s sensibility doesn’t mean it isn’t without merit. The album’s second hit, “Out Of My Head” achieved this success in part because it wasn’tlike everything else on the radio. It wasn’t an aggressive rock  song spewing bleak outlooks towards the future, nor was it fashionable and vapid pop that appealed to the vanity of teenagers who didn’t know any better and to young adults who should have. A song like “Better Than It Was”  would never make sense to a teenager who has thus far relied on his parents all of his life, and the funky rhythms of “Which Way To The Top?” are enjoyable on a superficial level, even as your average teen won’t know thing one about the perils and pleasures of professional achievement. Fastball was reveling in the now, and they were not afraid to eschew loudness in favor of delicacy.

Not that they were completely beyond rock; “Warm Fuzzy Feeling” offered up a quick blast of rock energy, and on b-sides “Freeloader Freddy” and “Quit Your Job,” they filtered the punk rock sound into songs that would appeal and be relatable to College graduates who were suddenly tired of youthful antics and the BS of  their friends. “Fire Escape” was a Beatlesque rocker that proved to be a minor hit in the wake of ”The Way,” a somewhat weird little number based on the mysterious disappearance and death of an elderly couple. With its sunny shuffle and exquisite harmonies, it’s really no surprise that the song was a hit..

Except it was a surprise.

As one might expect, the things that make  the record so appealing concerned the record label, who were concerned about the bottom line and appealing to the youth demographic. The label hemmed and hawed about the record, and the band themselves wasn’t even sure the album would be released. The possibility of the group simply disappearing into obscurity seemed much more likely than what did come:  a major radio hit, followed by another hit single, followed by a hit album that quickly went platinum, followed by several Grammy nominations, the ultimate token of a band’s mainstream success.

Even though the band would not reach such heights again, All The Pain Money Can Buy was a great peak to reach. This reissue is amazing in that it reveals an album that has aged magnificently, one that is enjoyable and makes a lot more sense two decades later.

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