Ken Tucker
September 18, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Harsh Light of Day

Current Status
In Season
Hollywood Records

We gave it a B-

From the Raspberries to Marshall Crenshaw to Matthew Sweet, purveyors of intelligent pop rock have had a difficult time of it commercially. The mass audience seems to like its rock inflected pop from either potential or bona fide teen idols, not grownups with knowing irony. But two years ago, Fastball’s single ”The Way” was the exception that proved the rule. The big hit from grownups no strangers to irony — built around a peppy, Beatlesque beat and full throated, earnest vocals — helped Fastball’s 1998 ”All the Pain Money Can Buy” go platinum, and now ”The Harsh Light of Day” is the Austin based trio’s bid to avoid ”one hit wonder” status.

Its first single, ”You’re an Ocean,” insists on reminding us of the Fab Four: It even features keyboard work from erstwhile Beatles collaborator Billy Preston that will introduce a new generation to the reasons why so many Beatles fans found him an annoyingly florid hanger on. Add that to Fastball’s decision to invite professional cornball Brian Setzer to play guitar on the Latin tinged ”Love Is Expensive and Free” — a song that starts out earnest and charming but goes on to become tiresomely precious — and you wonder whether the guys have forgotten the most hallowed pop rock virtue of all: concision.

Certainly, there are some terrific songs here. The propulsive ”Dark Street” pulls off that great pop trick of setting a despairing lyric to a catchy melody and conveying complex, ambivalent emotions in the process. There’s also an exquisitely constructed ballad, ”Funny How It Fades Away,” and (this is the one I’d have made a single) the tough, to the point ”This Is Not My Life.” Fastball are, in general, a little wobbly on this CD, but their aim is true often enough to suggest that once they get the guest star syndrome out of their system, the hits could keep on coming. B-

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