Deriving their name from a store in their hometown, Fountains Of Wayne unites two profoundly gifted songwriters, Adam Schlesinger (of Ivy fame, not to mention a soundtrack specialist whose contribution to the film That Thing You Do netted him an Oscar nomination) and Chris Collingwood. Under the guidance of this creative duo the band dabble in power pop, and while they owe a great deal to the likes of Big Star they're considerably more edgy, humorous and intelligent than that seminal rock outfit, and easily surpass them in the melody department as well.
Unlike a plethora of other power pop acts Fountains Of Wayne never employ distortion as a means of concealing a deficit in the melody department, nor do they ever allow their electric riffage to obstruct the pop grandeur of their tunes. Rather they strike an ideal balance between the bubblegum melodies and hard rock inherent to the power pop genre, marrying irresistible hooks to crunchy chord progressions in the most gratifying way possible.
Schlesinger and Collingwood simply excel in the songwriting department, penning power pop lyrics redeemed from the usual inanity associated with the genre's wordplay by injecting a healthy trace of self-awareness and irony. It's their hyper catchy music that's the band's greatest asset, however, as clever and memorable hooks abound, the type that will be irrevocably added to one's mental jukebox after only a few listens.
The album opens on a high note with the stellar Radiation Vibe, complete with catchy verses, a wonderful refrain and a fresh, intriguing lyrical twist on an old pop standby.
Next comes Sink To The Bottom, another instance of power pop of the highest order, followed by the accelerated hook-fest Joe Rey with its character assassination lyrics that may be in questionable taste given the subject's immigrant status but nevertheless still fail to put a damper on the immensely entertaining number.
She's Got A Problem isn't a highlight but by no means does it constitute filler, while Survival Car is more bouncy pop rock from a band that excels at that form. Barbara H and Sick Day are both outright beautiful, already betraying the fact that Fountains Of Wayne have far more depth and range than most of their power pop brethren, and both songs are also amongst the best on the album with well developed melodies and an array of pop hooks that don't dilute the more serious tone of the songs (not that they're terribly earnest, as the band tends to eschew sincerity in favor of a more smirking, detached demeanor).
I've Got A Flair blends crunchy, distorted guitarwork with another catchy pop melody, Leave The Biker is an instant classic with its amusing lyrics and unconventional hooks, You Curse At Girls is lesser but still good fun, Please Don't Rock Me Tonight is another clever lyrical reversal of expectations leaving Everything's Ruined to be the sole number that breaks the power pop mold in favor of acting as a kind of eccentric lullaby.
Thus Fountains Of Wayne's eponymous debut depicts a great band already in full flight, emerging at the peak of their genre after only a single outing. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Schlesinger and Collingwood were already relative veterans in the world of contemporary pop, but it's still encouraging to see bandmembers gel so well together from the very inception of their group. Hyper catchy, intelligent and charmingly irreverent, Fountains Of Wayne is power pop at its finest, more than living up to the legacy of the genre's pioneers like Big Star.
Given the inherently limited scope of power pop, assessing a group in said genre is seldom a matter of scrutinizing the artistic progression they've undergone, rather forcing the reviewer to simply focus on the caliber of their songwriting at any given juncture. Diversity, the cornerstone of myriad rock groups and a perennial favorite topic for rock critics to bandy about in their discourse, is nearly out of the question, as most power pop bands, by virtue of their style of choice, chronically neglect variety in their work, as the constraints of the genre offer few opportunities to expand or experiment with other sounds.
There's a certain set formula for power pop, and a narrow one at that, which impedes any progression an artist in the genre could hope to achieve when operating in that mold, and thus it's hard to lambaste a group for remaining somewhat static from a stylistic perspective. Ergo while Utopia Parkway, the Fountains Of Wayne's sophomore effort, is something of a rehash, it's easy to forgive the band for this transgression and look instead to the quality of the songwriting to pass judgment on.
Fortunately, it's in this regard that the band truly excels. The songwriting on Utopia Parkway matches that of its predecessor, high praise given the stellar melodies and amusing lyrics that characterized the group's eponymous debut. The band's facility for conjuring irresistible melodies is fully intact, resulting in a parade of unforgettable tunes filled with glorious pop hooks paired with viscerally gratifying distorted guitarwork.
The ideal balance of pop and rock achieved on the Fountains Of Wayne's debut has been preserved on their second outing, as the band adeptly employ aggressive heavy riffage to communicate bouncy pop hooks, a difficult feat that few groups in the genre have so elegantly handled.
The album is devoid of filler, though Troubled Times reinforces a notion cultivated on the band's debut with She's Got A Problem, namely that when the group feign sincerity and attempt to be moving they lose a considerable amount of their charm. Fountains Of Wayne are far more effective when they remain sly and aloof, and thus these emotionally 'honest' excursions come across as forced and awkward. They songs are salvaged by the group's usual melodic flair, however, and thus never become serious issues.
Highlights abound on Utopia Parkway. Red Dragon Tattoo can almost be seen as an homage to the Who with their similarly themed anthem, but it's still wholly its own song, compete with humorous lyrics and terrific vocal melodies. Denise is an absolutely infectious pop rocker with its irresistible over-the-top 'sha-na-na-na-na-na-na' background vocals and intentionally vacuous lyrics, while the band's vicious assault on sixties counterculture, Go, Hippie, features an ecstatic onslaught of wah-wah guitarwork, something I've always harbored a deep fondness for.
It could be argued that toward the end of the album the band begins to lose steam, as songs like Prom Theme, Lost In Space, It Must Be Summer and The Senator's Daughter, while uniformly solid, are inferior to much of what's come before, and while I'll concede that the track sequencing isn't quite ideal the qualitative drop-off isn't sufficiently large so as to constitute a significant problem.
Thus Utopia Parkway is once again power pop of the highest order, filled with a plethora of stunning melodies and clever lyrics. Schlesinger and Collingwood continue to work wonders as a songwriting team; they may not be the new millennium's Lennon and McCartney but nevertheless the duo share a common pop sensibility that animates each song with excitement and intelligence, which is more than anyone could ask for from a contemporary power pop outfit.
Welcome Interstate Managers was Fountains Of Wayne's commercial breakthrough, and this transition into collective mainstream consciousness can be attributed to a solitary song, a song that also acted as the catalyst for the band's condescending Grammy nomination for 'best new artist' despite the inarguable existence of the group's first two stellar albums.
The song in question is, of course, the uber-hit Stacy's Mom, a track that's wrongfully eclipsed nearly other number in the group's repertoire. This isn't to say that the song is the nadir of the Fountains Of Wayne canon; on the contrary, the way the band effortlessly achieve breathtaking anthemic heights using only a few simple (yet irresistible) hooks is a testament to the group's total mastery of the power pop genre. Nevertheless it's a travesty that that song, no matter how good, has overshadowed the rest of the album, as there are myriad tracks throughout that surpass that commercial darling in almost every respect.
There is indeed much to laud about Welcome Interstate Managers, not the least of which is the fact that the album's considerably more diverse than the band's previous outings. Whether it be forays into country rock (like Hung Up On You) or flirtations with more ambitious art-rock tendencies (like on Supercollider, which appropriately namedrops Pink Floyd over the course of its lyrics), the band appear to make a concerted effort to demonstrate that they're more than a simple power pop outfit, exhibiting a level of versatility that was conspicuously absent from both their debut and their sophomore effort.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of the album is devoted to power pop, and this is hardly a bad thing; diversity is welcome, and all of the genre exercises on Welcome Interstate Managers are immensely entertaining, but it's certainly not a crime for a band to have a specialty, and Fountains Of Wayne are undeniably at their best in the power pop arena.
Regardless of genre, however, every track on the album shines, and by all rights Welcome Interstate Managers should have been a hit even without the presence of the Fountain Of Wayne's calling card to mainstream acceptance, Stacy's Mom. Mexican Wine encompasses every positive aspect of power pop in a compact, concentrated form, with darkly amusing lyrics, tremendous rocking power and a wonderful sing-along nearly nursery-rhyme-style chorus.
Another stellar power pop number arrives with the riff rocker Bright Future In Sales; it's probably the lyrics in songs like that particular number that prevented Fountains Of Wayne from hitting the big time right off the bat, as, much like the Mael brothers in Sparks, Schlesinger and Collingwood were simply far too clever for their own good.
Other power pop classics include No Better Place, another deft marriage of pop hooks and distorted riffage, as well as Little Red Light, a terrific and highly energetic rocker.
There are plenty of strong tracks that don't conform to the power pop paradigm, however; the stripped down ballad Valley Winter Song has a certain understated beauty, while on All Kinds Of Time the band somehow manage to transfigure a delineation of a football play into a tender, gorgeous anthem.
The band also provide another pretty acoustic number in the form of Hey Julie, an infectious pop tune that's brilliant in its simplicity, while the closer, Yours And Mine, is too short to really register in a meaningful way but still makes a fitting ending to a stellar album.
Thus Welcome Interstate Managers is a worthy successor to Utopia Parkway and the band's eponymous debut, filled with tight, exciting and vastly enjoyable numbers. Schlesinger and Collingwood rank amongst the top pop songwriters of their generation, truly gifted composers who seemingly effortlessly generate a plethora of catchy, memorable melodies. The injection of a measure of diversity into the proceedings only serves to enhance their music, and reveal sides of the band that had only been hinted at in the past.
The surprise commercial success of Welcome Interstate Managers resulted in an unprecedented potential market for Fountains Of Wayne albums; the band, however, were far from prolific, rendering capitalizing upon their all too likely ephemeral mainstream buzz a rather difficult proposition.
The band's eventual follow up to their breakthrough third album didn't arrive until a full four years later, and simply waiting to build upon their growing fanbase could prove catastrophic to the commercial hopes of both the group and their record company. Ergo as a stopgap measure the Fountains Of Wayne released a two disc B-side/rarities collection, thus keeping their name in circulation during their otherwise potentially disastrous sabbatical.
This is certainly a rather problematic solution, as the few rarities collections that are actually genuinely worthwhile are invariably compiled from years of touring and songwriting. Given that Fountains Of Wayne are, relatively speaking, a band still in their musical infancy, deeply entrenched in their formative years, attempting to extract enough previously unreleased content from them to sustain a double album is tantamount to following up a debut with a greatest hits package.
Thus it's not surprising that Out-Of-State Plates is a highly erratic offering, with far too little history to draw upon for revelations about the band's progression and a severe paucity of material that truly merits a listen from an entertainment standpoint. There is certainly a modicum of intriguing curiosities, along with a few genuinely solid melodies, but by and large the album is lacking in both style and substance, an unnecessarily protracted behemoth that's awkward, unwieldy and markedly desultory, bereft of a true function or purpose other than to release a product with the 'Fountains Of Wayne' name printed on it.
This isn't to say that the album is devoid of merit, but even the 'can't fail' numbers inevitably turn awry: the group included two brand new tracks to help bait hardcore fans, but while one of them is terrific the latter of the two, The Girl I Can't Forget, is bland, banal and predictable, thus diluting the appeal of the one sure-fire way to attract listeners.
The first of the two new tracks, however, is indeed exceptional and well worth a listen. Called Maureen, it's a stellar pop rocker in the vein of Denise with a hyper-catchy melody, amusing lyrics and an array of stunning hooks. On its own it isn't enough to warrant a purchase, but it does make for an effective consolation for those who feel cheated by the hefty price tag of such a ragtag collection.
Maureen isn't the only worthy offering presented here, however. California Sex Lawyer is sleazy but entertaining, while Nightlight is at least distinctive with its psychedelic underpinnings and ethnic Indian overtones which recall the Beatles in their Revolver-era experimental mode.
Oddly enough one of the more compelling tracks is the band's cover of Britney Spears' wretched …Baby One More Time; the group is so straight-faced, mock-earnest and gravely serious in their performance that it can't help but be hilarious, treating contemporary aural effluvia as if carried philosophical heft and psychological insight. The humor is compounded by the fact that the group obstinately and adamantly deny that their cover is in any way ironic, lending it an additional layer of charming absurdity and whimsy.
Admittedly even a lot of the lesser numbers can be entertaining while they're on; they seldom demand or even merit further listens, but for fans of the group it can be intriguing to hear them meandering around in search of their ultimate voice. While it hardly provides much of a history lesson, listening to misfires can still be interesting in small doses, though devoting a double album to such material is the very definition of self-indulgent excess.
The album is just interesting enough to justify a rating of 'good,' while tracks like Maureen certainly help bolster the case for the collection. There are few outright offensive tracks, and while many songs are forgettable the album, in the long run, proves entertaining, if only for a few listens. The group are talented enough that they tend to invest at least some worth in each track, and while that's damning with faint praise it's enough to elevate a potential disaster to the realm of 'easily listenable.'
Fountains Of Wayne must have had quite a conundrum when they plotted their course in the wake of the runaway success of Welcome Interstate Managers; a group can often simply adhere to a winning formula when attempting to duplicate a success, but the fact of the matter is that their third outing was largely reminiscent of their less lucrative output. The success of Welcome Interstate Managers over their prior material comes across as rather arbitrary, a fluke that they would be hard pressed to repeat.
Were there a pivotal element that differentiated Welcome Interstate Managers from their other outings then perhaps Fountains Of Wayne could seek to emulate it, but as it stands their modus operandi remained relatively static for the duration of their careers. Thus there was little for the group to do save produce a fourth album in the same basic style as the previous three, hoping that their newfound fame would attract listeners to a sound that they had previously neglected.
This was likely the most logically sound decision the band could have made at this juncture, as their style was always, at heart, conducive toward commercial success, and the missing element that sabotaged their fare could simply have been a lack of name value. Thus Fountains Of Wayne set out to prove that their newfound success was not an anomaly, and that their rightful place was at the top of the charts all along, as they merely lacked the necessary spark to draw an audience to their work. The spark for Welcome Interstate Managers was Stacy's Mom, and now hopefully Welcome Interstate Managers will be the spark for the future of the band's careers.
Ergo the resulting product is another power pop album in the vein of the band's first three, a slick, commercial affair designed to be as accessible as possible without ever resorting to anything that could be termed pandering. Needless to say the albums bears an acute resemblance to what's come before, drawing upon the elements that had animated the band's prior work and made them such captivating listens.
The first three Fountains Of Wayne albums were remarkably consistent, but it's unsurprising that on their fourth time around they encounter at least a modicum of difficulty in sustaining that level of quality for the duration of the CD. Additionally, given that Traffic And Weather is essentially the band's third rehash the album sounds somewhat less fresh than the group's earlier work, an inevitable outcome that's nonetheless rather disheartening for longtime listeners.
This isn't to say that the songwriting on the album is weak; on the contrary, catchy melodies abound, and it's doubtful that Schlesinger and Collingwood will ever lose their knack for generating memorable pop hooks. Despite this, however, there is a clear drop-off in quality from their previous efforts; the melodies are still of a caliber that most pop bands would kill for, but Fountains Of Wayne have set a very high standard for themselves that is proving, as time passes, difficult to consistently achieve.
The album's first single, Someone To Love, has all the tools to become a major hit, but such success has eluded comparably strong Fountains Of Wayne songs in the past, while a lesser number, Stacy's Mom, became the group's staple, proving it difficult to anticipate the irrational whims of the record-buying public. The song boasts a strong melody and clever lyrics, but sometimes it sounds a bit too slick and, accordingly, somewhat clinical and sterile. It's still a great song, however, and the perfect opener for the album.
Songs like This Better Be Good are ultimately Fountains Of Wayne by the numbers, but the band's formula has always been eminently charming, so while such tracks may be too predictable and familiar to constitute classics they remain quite entertaining and can thus be forgiven for their lack of innovation.
This description applies to myriad tracks throughout the album. There's little that's terribly 'new' to find here, but nonetheless what is here remains considerably enjoyable for fans of the group. Even on a lesser album the band are prodigiously gifted enough to generate a highly compelling sonic experience, so even if Traffic And Weather doesn't reach the heights of the band's first three albums it can still offer a large amount of fun for those willing to overlook its shortcomings.
Somewhere along the way, Fountains Of Wayne developed the erroneous notion that they have something to say.
It's difficult to determine when precisely they assumed this belief. The band have had a predilection for 'story-songs' since their inception, but in the past these tracks were characterized by a certain slightness and whimsy. This playfulness not only made these songs hard to take seriously for the listener, but seemingly for the group as well.
As the band grew, however, so did their conviction that they were more than a lightweight power-pop outfit. Their story-songs became more complex and ambitious, but sadly their skills as lyricists did not grow accordingly. Worse still, their newfound pretensions were accompanied by an off-putting smugness that, while present in the past, was far easier to overlook in the context of straightforward power-pop tunes.
By the time Traffic And Weather was released, it had become difficult to deny Fountains Of Wayne's alarming new direction. I had initially defended the insipid lyrics of Someone To Love, assuming that its trite platitudes were self-consciously inane. Further listens dispel this comforting illusion, however, as the song seems fully convinced of its own depth and insight.
It isn't until Sky Full Of Holes, however, that the band becomes completely mired in its own futile ambitions. Nearly every track on the album is a story-song, and very few are content with simply providing a pleasant listening experience.
This becomes abundantly clear from the album's beginning. The Summer Place is indeed meant to be humorous, but it also aspires to a certain wittiness and sophistication that is well beyond the band's reach. Fountains Of Wayne are not Sparks, and their attempts at clever coruscations can be rather grating.
Action Hero, however, is far, far worse. The track is obviously meant to be moving and profound, but the emotion seems forced and its 'insightful' portrayal of its protagonist is colossally heavy-handed. The song is incredibly emotionally manipulative, yet still manages to fail to evoke any meaningful reaction at all. Furthermore, at least The Summer Place is moderately catchy. Action Hero has a rather pedestrian melody at best, with nothing to compensate for its lyrical inadequacies.
Hate To See You Like This is analogous to Oingo Boingo's Out Of Control, namely a sappy, banal and emotionally sterile message of hope from a group known for being edgy and aloof. Perhaps the intended recipient of this counsel was moved by the song, but few others will be.
These are some of the more egregious instances of lyrical mediocrity, but there are plenty of other culprits, from the uninspired tedium of A Road Song to the irksome Workingman's Hands.
Needless to say, this is the worst possible time for the group's songwriting skills to wane, but that's precisely what's happened. This qualitative dip was already evident on Traffic And Weather, but on Sky Full Of Holes it's much more pronounced.
Tracks like Cold Comfort Flowers and Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart are as catchy as ever, but I'd say that nearly half of the album falls way below the group's standards in the melody department.
Given the vociferousness with which I've lamented the album's emotional impotence, it's odd that its best track is its most transparently tear-jerking number. Whether it's due to the song's simple directness, understated arrangement or accessible subject matter, I find Cemetery Guns to be genuinely moving. Its melody, while far from brilliant, is still effective, as is the sincerity of the vocals after an album of flippancy and detachment. The song's not necessarily what you'd expect, or even want, from a Fountains Of Wayne track, but it's certainly more than welcome on such an erratic and frustrating album.
As one would expect from these descriptions, Sky Full Of Holes is scarcely a power-pop album at all. Strangely, I don't attribute the album's shortcomings to this genre-shift. Sky Full Of Holes' problems had been developing for quite some time, and thus would have been inevitable even if the band had remained in their power-pop mode. Fountains Of Wayne have harbored their unrealistic ambitions from the start, and they were bound to lead the group astray sooner or later.
There are still enough strong melodies to make the album worthwhile, but until the band address their lyrical issues they'll have a major handicap curtailing their development as a pop outfit.