For Fastball's seventh album, The Help Machine, the band enlisted some top notch help. Released on the group's 33 1/3 label, it was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame and includes guest appearances by Charlie Sexton, Bruce Hughes of Cracker, Wye Oak's Andy Stack, and Gordy Quist and John Chapman from The Band of Heathens. The result is an 11-song collection of smartly crafted pop tunes that straddle the line between classic and modern rock.
As usual, Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo share songwriting duties on the album, with Zuniga having seven tracks and Scalzo four. The duo says that in the past they viewed the group almost as two bands in one, since their songs and vocals were so different from each other - and to some degree that is still true - but on The Help Machine - they contribute more to each other's songs than in the past, creating more of a unified band feel that before.
The album opens with Zuniga's "Friend Or Foe," a lushly layered pop song that builds in intensity throughout. The song showcases some strong, Beatle-inspired harmony vocals and, despite its lyrical content about it being hard to tell who your true friends are, remains an upbeat tune. Scalzo's "White Collar" follows and is as strong lyrically as musically. The song seems to tackle middle age and asking for forgiveness for doing stupid things without any repercussions. It's a throwback to the days when pop songs could be both melodic and thought provoking.
The band takes a gospel turn on Zuniga's "Redeemed," a bluesy track that harkens back to the band's biggest hit, "The Way," musically. The standout track shows how well Zuniga and Scalzo's voices work together and is a chance to show off some tasty guitar chops. Zuniga handles the album's title track, as well, a dreamy pop song drenched in lush orchestration about self-help with a strong lead vocal.
Scalzo's country rock song, "The Girl You Pretended To Be," features some strong playing from Sexton and clever lyrics about people not turning out to be who we thought they were. The track plays to Scalzo's strengths both lyrically and vocally and is another highlight of this strong disc. Zuniga's pretty ballad, "Never Say Never," closes out the album and is country influenced as well. Its thought-provoking lyrics finish the way the way it started and show off Zuniga's versatility as a writer.
While it would have been nice to have had more than four songs from Scalzo, the ones included are all excellent and Zuniga's tracks more than make up for this deficit. Fastball has crafted yet another strong record of intelligent pop songs with smart melodies and lyrics. In this day and age, that is something that is sadly missing from music.