CD Review of Two Lights by Five for Fighting

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Two Lights
starstarstarno starno star Label: Columbia
Released: 2006
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Give singer/songwriter John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting credit. He’s got the formula down for writing songs, building on past success in the alt pop world from hits like “Easy Tonight” and “100 Years.” And while Ondrasik, who by the way, literally IS Five for Fighting, delivers some more good songs on his latest, Two Lights, he sometimes beats that songwriting formula like it’s a dead horse. But you can’t take away the fact that this guy has a knack for turning a lyric, and for taking lyrics that may have personal meaning and giving them mass appeal.

You’ll recognize that piano, melodies that swing to falsetto and back, and a voice that is as distinguishable as any on the pop landscape with tracks like “Freedom Never Cries,” “The Riddle,” and “I Just Love You.” Those songs are likely the kind that you’re going to hear on soft rock radio for years – you know, the kind of music that plays in your dentist office while you’re getting the drill. (Has anyone wondered why they never play Judas Priest or Iron Maiden to match the rhythm of said drill?) Anyway, while some of those songs are quite compelling, they do come off as a bit formulaic.

But then there are efforts to shake things up, and Ondrasik does that quite successfully on songs like “California Justice,” which plays with loops and textures other than just piano and has a chorus that’s catchy as hell. “Policeman’s Xmas Party” features a vocal that is purposely off-kilter though not off-key, matching the dark comic aspect of the lyrics: “Welcome to the first day of the rest of my life / The tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife / Something's happened, things will never be the same / There's blood on the carpet - I'm rewiring my brain.”

Dude also shows an edgy side on “65 Mustang,” written about a car Ondrasik loves that was handed down from his dad. But more than that, this song rocks like no other Five for Fighting song ever has, and rocks with balls. The closing track, “Johnny America,” is a cutesy song about that fear you just don’t have as a kid – but dude, what is that little whistle you have going on at the end of the song? It’s seriously the definition of nails on a chalkboard.

For the most part, Ondrasik delivers a decent collection of songs with Two Lights, be they formulaic and sometimes fun. Certainly no one can take away that talent and the ability to churn songs out in his sleep. But there’s going to come a time, and maybe it’s already here, that Five for Fighting has no place on radio except on those soft rock stations. Gone are the Aware Records/modern rock radio days when Ondrasik was the next big thing alongside artists like Train and John Mayer. But hey, while all of us age in different ways, we all age nonetheless. And with Two Lights, Five for Fighting is still aging somewhat gracefully.

~Mike Farley