There may be no way we can expiate our collective guilt for allowing generic groaners like Matt Kearney or mewling twits like James Blunt to dominate the male singer/songwriter terrain in this country. Well, maybe one way: Simply by visiting Joe’s Pub the last four Friday nights in February and indulging in the sparkling pop of Mike Viola. You know Viola’s songs, if not necessarily his name. He wrote several clever tunes for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, from the mock protest song “Take My Hand” (about the titular Johnny Cash goof’s sincere feelings for “little people”) to the Roy Orbison splendor of “A Life Without You (Is No Life at All),” with its King Lear references. You probably also know his voice from the snappy piece of faux bubblegum “That Thing You Do!”, which anchored the eponymous Tom Hanks film. Viola’s more personal, less well-known songs run the gamut from the impossibly gorgeous “Give Me Some Time” (which has the limpid, melodic feel of classic McCartney) to “Falling Into Place,” which owes something to the edgy new wave of Parker and Costello. Hearing such authoritative eclecticism is tantamount to a re-education in songcraft—or, in these dark days of Kearney, Johnson, et al., maybe more like a deprogramming.
“I’ve described these shows as ‘nights of uplifting pop music,’ ” says the Boston transplant and longtime Lower East Sider, whose albums Falling Into Place (1999) and Hang On Mike (2004) are the few bright spots in this recent dark era of
male-oriented pop. “I’ve got a catalog that goes back to the early ’90s, with and without my band the Candy Butchers, so there’s lots of songs to choose from,” Viola continues. “Three of the nights will be with my new band, Everybody Else, and that last Friday, it’ll just be me with a string quartet. I don’t want to give away any names, but some rock and pop stalwarts I’ve worked with in the past will be joining me on these dates.” Seeing as he’s collaborated with folks like John Wesley Harding and the Fountains of Wayne, make your own predictions.
Viola says he considers the late-night hour of these Friday shows to be a plus: “When people come out at 11 at night, they’re not there to talk and party,” he says. “They’re serious music listeners.” And what can those serious listeners expect to hear? Perhaps the lovely “Give Me Some Time,” wherein Viola croons, “I love you more than I can say/Maybe that’s why I never do.” You might even hear a song he used to run from: a sublime bit of ear candy called “That Thing You Do!”
“For a while, I avoided doing the song,” Viola admits. “It seemed too easy to do my one ‘hit.’ But I’ve since played it with my band, and it sounds great—I guess I feel less hoity-toity about the song. People go nuts when we play it, so it’s the right thing to do.”