Fountains Of Wayne (Tag/Atlantic ’96) Rating: A-
Power pop with sugary sweet vocals that somewhat recall Matthew Sweet, Fountains Of Wayne’s debut delivers consistently catchy songs with amusingly crafted lyrics. It’s a good time album that doesn’t take itself too seriously, as the band's clever rhymes seem designed to sound good or present quirky characters and/or amusing situations rather than to say anything overly important or insightful. There are exceptions from the lightly cheery fare in the form of sad ballads such as “She’s Got A Problem” (lyric: “she’s not long for this world”) and “Sick Day” (lyric: “she’s alone in the world”), but these are welcome respites from what is otherwise a joyously upbeat album. Whether talking about puppy love, feeling blue, or documenting feelings of jealously or the thrills of joyriding, Fountains Of Wayne put everything across in a mildly affecting manner, making for fun summer fare. “Sink To The Bottom,” “Barbara H.,” "I've Got A Flair," the utterly flawless “Radiation Vibe,” and the hilarious “Leave The Biker” should especially keep you humming along with their fuzzily melodic power chords and catchy choruses, as group leaders Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger (also a member of Ivy and the writer of the catchy theme song to Tom Hanks’ movie That Thing You Do) keep the cheery sounds coming. Although they're a power pop band that delivers more pop than power, "Joe Rey" and "Survival Car" surge with what could almost be called a punky pop rush, while mellower moments come in the form of "You Curse At Girls" and "Everything's Ruined." All of which makes for a well balanced and extremely entertaining, filler-free first platter, though the album’s stylistic limitations and Collingwood's somewhat wimpy vocals can wear thin after awhile.
Utopia Parkway (Atlantic ’99) Rating: A-
Taking the summery pop of The Beach Boys and the retro psychedelic sounds of songs such as Smash Mouth’s “Walking On The Sun” and The Searchers “Love Potion #9” as models, on Utopia Parkway Fountains Of Wayne effortlessly deliver 14 more instantly ingratiating power pop songs with singable choruses. "Utopia Parkway" and "Red Dragon Tatoo" are really catchy, the band rocks out on “Denise,” “The Valley Of Malls,” “Go, Hippie” (which even has a wailing guitar solo!), "Lost In Space," and “It Must Be Summer,” and their mellower side again entices on the gorgeously airy ballad “Troubled Times,” the pretty “Prom Theme,” and "A Fine Day For A Parade." Granted, songs about malls, tattoos, proms, and laser shows might not register high in the lyrical depth department, but again Schlesinger and Collingwood continue to provide many a clever play on words. Plus, the album has an undeniable "grooviness" to it, and those cheesy Casio keyboards are a real hoot. Really, my complaints about this album are minor, such as the fact that most of these songs are very good but aren't quite great, the band can on occasion be a bit bland (this album's more polished production doesn't always work in the band's favor), and the high-pitched vocals again make this an album that I need to be the mood for. However, if given a chance Utopia Parkway can put a bounce in the step of even the stiffest square, and add a touch of warmth to the coldest Winter day.
Welcome Interstate Managers (Virgin '03) Rating: B+
Although Fountains Of Wayne's first two albums were beloved by rock critics and power pop fans (small contingents both), the record buying public didn't budge, and the band were dropped by their record label. But word about the band spread, perhaps spurred along by a four year absence, and now their highly anticipated third album, Welcome Interstate Managers, arrives with a fair amount of fanfare. Alas, as is so often the case, the band's most popular album to date is their least enjoyable, in large part because at 55 minutes long the album sags under the weight of its ambitions. Of course, this being Fountains Of Wayne, most of these songs are good, very good, even, but they're not quite as instantly memorable or as appealing as in the past. On the positive side, the album offers more variety and a broader musical scope, while their clever, sometimes smarmy lyrics are again eminently quotable (examples: "it may just be the whiskey talking, but the whiskey says I miss you every day"; "ever since you hung up on me, I'm hung up on you"; "before you get sold you get bought for a song"). It's also fun playing spot the influences; parts of "Bright Future In Sales" could easily pass for Squeeze, the silly but effortlessly singable first single "Stacy's Mom" (a big hit thanks to video vixen Rachel Hunter) nods to The Cars, "No Better Place" delivers jangle rock reminiscent of any number of '80s college rock bands, "Hey Julie" sounds like a Paul Simon showcase, "Little Red Light" and "Bought For A Song" rawk with an Oasis-worthy onslaught, and (most surprisingly) "Hung Up On You" is a dead ringer for the late country rocker Gram Parsons. So, as you can see, there is much to admire about this album, especially since Schlesinger and Collingwood continue to make each song seem like its very own self-contained short story. These East Coast-based vignettes generally feature guys in dead end jobs in dead end towns (sorry, "Hackensack"); most of them drink too much, and almost all of them pine for something that they just can't have. Among the songs not previously name checked, "Mexican Wine" starts the album on a typical note by updating The Beach Boys for the new millennium, resulting in a sunny pop song that's eminently singable and just a little cheesy. "Valley Winter Song" is sweetly melancholic, "All Kinds Of Time" (about a quarterback with too much time on his hands) and "Supercollider" could almost be called "power ballads," and "Halley's Waitress" is a tongue in cheek track that reminds me of '70s soft rock. There are other songs, too, some of which are good ("Fire Island") and others that misfire ("Peace And Love") or seem unnecessary ("Yours And Mine"), but there's too damn many of them in any event. Taken in small dosages I dig a good deal of this album, but over its duration Welcome Interstate Managers starts to seem awfully long. Fortunately, by and large the album's abundance of fine songs overcomes the band's poor editing, but Welcome Interstate Managers does add up to less than the sum of its often-impressive individual parts.
Traffic and Weather (Virgin '07) Rating: B
After a b-sides and rarities compilation, Out Of State Plates (2005), the band came back with another solid outing on Traffic and Weather, even if it seems to me like more of the same only not quite as good. It is still good, though, but by and large the album lacks truly standout songs; there’s no obvious hit single here, though any number of tracks could be I suppose given the album’s consistent quality. Still, the band are starting to sound more and more like formula to me. For one thing, the band’s much-ballyhooed lyrics seem more clunky and less clever this time, with loads of pop culture references that seem like bids for potential advertisements (this is ok in small dosages but annoying in abundance) and an over-reliance on obtrusive synths (again, small dosages = ok, large quantities = cheap gimmick). As per usual, the upbeat pop rockers, my favorites of which are “Someone To Love” and “Strapped For Cash,” are more instantly memorable than the ballads, some of which are still quite pretty, such as “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim” (the quintessential Fountains Of Wayne song title?), "Fire In The Canyon," and “Seatbacks and Traytables.” Also, the band’s songs remain very much character (and story) based, with an attention to detail that allows them to hold up to repeat plays, and though many of the songs are cheery on the surface, a deceptive melancholy also typically lurks. II really don’t know what else to say other than that this is another very solid Fountains Of Wayne album, albeit one that I’d rank below the band’s three prior albums (especially the first two).