The Help Machine
33 1/3 Records
Truth be told, despite my longtime fanboy fascination for Fastball, it took me quite a while to work up and submit this review. Not that it was some laborious task, but because I made the mistake of letting my GF borrow the CD on the front end – and she refused to give it back. Seriously, she refused. And when I had to retrieve it personally from her car, she gave me the “pouty lip” thing. Apparently, she loves Fastball at least as much I do.
The Help Machine finds the time-tested Texas trio in fine form, still doing what they do best – producing consistent Revolver-caliber pop/rock songs that’ll zing ya ‘til next Tuesday. However, with the guidance and encouragement of producer and Los Lobos saxophonist, Steve Berlin, the 11-song collection does pull the band out a bit from their creative comfort zone. Regarding the new record, guitarist Miles Zuniga commented recently, “We’re feeling a sense of urgency with the music that’s really refreshing.”
The songs move occasionally from the band’s signature crackly, “dive bar ‘round midnight” style and glide into more of a groovy, “martini bar ‘round 4am” vibe. The frequent smoother sheen can likely be attributed to bassist Tony Scalzo sliding over to keyboards for this record, with Bruce Hughes (Cracker / Poi Dog Pondering) holding down bass duties.
Like a cool breeze blowing through an open window following “a scorcher,” Zuniga’s heartfelt love song, “Friend or Foe” is a beautiful, familiar-feeling opener. In short order, Scalzo chimes in with his first contribution of the set, “White Collar.” Speaking to an anonymous LA white collar crook, Scalzo delivers one of the record’s best lyrics – Driving up and down the pacific coast, Grand Wizard of the weenie roast.
A hypnotic highlight, Zuniga’s “Holding the Devil’s Hand” seems to be addressing drug addiction. I suppose it could be about Tom Brady. But my gut tells me it’s a drug song. Joey Shuffield’s almost-programmed-sounding drum work really makes this one pop.
Dripping with all the authenticity of a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack classic and peppered with appealing fab four-flavored harmonies, “Redeemed” is another bona-fide “keeper.” Displaying concern over someone’s personal hypocrisy, Zuniga quotes Jesus (more or less), from Chapter Seven of the Gospel of Matthew – “Judge not, lest you be judged. Keep your own house clean. Redeem yourself.”
“All Gone Fuzzy” and “The Girl You Pretended to Be” both burst with the catchy crispness even casual Fastball fans would expect, while “Surprise Surprise” boasts some “surprise” backside-blistering guitar work and “Doesn’t It Make You Feel Small” snaps with “Taxman”-type appeal.
Residing stylistically somewhere near the Mexican border, “Never Say Never” is an honest and pure, coming of age love song – if the age you’re “coming of” is 50+. I’ll never do another line of cocaine. And I’m never going back to Laredo again. Never do the crazy things that I used to. But I’ll never say never when it comes to you. That’s some solid sentiment, right there, and this closing number really wants to take home the record’s “Best in Show” honors.
In sum, the latest from Fastball is a sizzler’. Infectious and fun, it’s yet another tremendous record from that other “Little Ol’ Band from Texas.” One of the best and brightest efforts of 2019.