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 grown-ups with knowing irony. But two years ago, Fastball's single ''The Way'' was the exception that proved the rule. The big hit from grown-ups 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-