Friday, April 27, 2012

Artist Primer: Fountains of Wayne In Five Songs

I don't know how many times I've heard it:
Me: "Yeah, I've been listening to a lot of Fountains of Wayne lately, you check out that mix I made you?
Other Person: "Uh, yeah. I checked out a couple of songs it's ok..."
Me: "..."
And so it goes. Fountains of Wayne isn't a hipster band. They have no edge, they're goofy, nerdy, over-the-top poppy and shamelessly suburban. Basically, it's everything that you went to college to avoid. If there were an anti-Cure or Talking Heads this band, with their lack of self-seriousness or pretensions, would be it. Sure, they love to pay homage to the 80's, but they were rockin' Ric Ocasek back then, not D. Boon.

But despite their lack of interest hip touchstones, I would argue that Fountains of Wayne's catalog has some unassailably great musicianship embedded in its DNA. They've got the songwriting chops of the Kinks, the voluminous pop music knowledge of a record geek (albeit one with a deep love for AM pop) and the ability to craft a hook that will haunt your dreams. The only "problem" is that they're unabashedly broad in their palette. They're funny when they should be arty, they're able to appreciate America with empathy rather than irony. And for this they are shunned, seen as one-hit wonders who play to Baby Boomers rather than a relevant rock band (except for the lovely folks at The A.V. Club, God bless them).

Well today I say "no more"! Fountains of Wayne is playing the Double Door tomorrow night and I'm finally getting a chance to see the boys for the first time. In celebration I'm giving you five FoW songs that will not only make your life better, but also illustrate different aspects of the often-overlooked genius of a band that is as good a pop-rock outfit as any going today, bar-none. If you're a fan - enjoy. If you're a skeptic, please read (and listen!) because this is a band worthy of your time and attention.

1. Leave The Biker  Buy Fountains Of Wayne
One of FoW's great songwriting strengths is their eye for specificity. Their characters aren't just old guys, they're men who "look quiet a bit like Carl Reiner", they don't just pick up a bland job, they "[talk their] way into / a job at La Quinta" (bonus points for rhyming those stanzas). So it's no surprise that even on their most indie/garagey album, their 1997 self-titled debut they were using such minor observations to create gripping, relatable characters.
"Leave The Biker" is a song sung by every geek whose ever lost a girl to the cool/tough/rebellious but jerky guy. Over a scratchy, palm-muted riff, Chris Collingswood pours his heart out to a girl he loves who's dating a leather-clad asshole. "He's got his arm around every man's dream" he complains, then noting with deft and universally understood specificity "crumbs in his beard from the seafood special". The singer wears his hear painfully exposed on his sleeve by wondering if his rival was ever heartbroken over a prom date or dead pet in a manner that generates uncomfortably recognizable pathos. Of course this is all redeemed by the slightly vengeful chorus where he urges the girl to "please, leave the biker, / leave the biker - break his heart". It's a great geek-revenge pop song that remembers that most geek-revenge stories take place in the head.

2. Amity Gardens -  Buy Utopia Parkway
Ah, Utopia Parkway - their great concept album. This was the band's love-letter to that oddly suburban/urban/no-man's-land known as northeastern New Jersey. Here they were able to embrace and find interest in the banal, the unhip, the middle-America-aping reality that so many people face on a daily basis but which so much modern music (ok, by this I mean "indie" or whatever pejorative de jour you care to name) chooses to either ignore or denigrate rather than understand.

"Amity Gardens" is definitely an album track, it lacks the flair of "Denise", the hooks and drive of "Red Dragon Tattoo" and the relatability and pop genius of "Troubled Times" from that same record. Instead it just does what it does extremely well. Collingswood unspools his tale about the suburban Pennsylvania American dream over a soothing bassline and hazy electric guitars. To be fair, the song is somewhat pessimistic about the reality of suburbia as he tells us that "if you knew now / what you knew then / you wouldn't wanna go to Amity Gardens" but it also paints a sonic picture of the very broad-lawned, pacific dream that its characters are dreaming of. Utopia Parkway reminds us that there's life in the suburbs and that most of those who choose to live do it for perfectly understandable reasons and end up as flawed as the rest of us. After all, don't all of us want that perfect at-ease moment every once in a while? On some level we all just want to be able to say that "the Buick's in the drive / it's good to be alive."

3. No Better Place  Buy Welcome Interstate Managers
Is there a better opening line in pop music history than "was that supposed to be your poker face / or was someone run over by a train"? None come to mind over here.
It's a good thing too, because those words are backed by a deliciously crunchy rock backing track that gives them even more punch. On "No Better Place" Fountains of Wayne not only indulge in their late 60's psychedelic fetish, but they prove their songwriting chops at the same time. An all-time great breakup song, it shifts between lonely electric guitar strumming and sweet, gorgeous full band crescendos as appropriate, to devastating effect. Lines about being "wrapped around your pillow like a prawn" or allegorical asides about whiskey being a talking puppet-master are custom-designed to appeal to not just the broken-hearted (and you can trust me on that count) but the music-lover as well. This is a last-call anthem that can go toe-to-toe with any song out there. The fact that it's tucked into an album full of strummy pop, rip-snortin' power-pop, gorgeous ballads and even some passable faux-country (to name a few styles) just reminds us that this is a band capable of making classic songbook albums that play for keeps.

4. The Girl I Can't Forget  Buy Out-Of-State Plates
OK, I'll admit that, at times, Fountains of Wayne's seemingly endless hooks and lyrics that are nearly too-clever-by-half come close to going over the top, even for me. If there ever were a song that illustrates this, it would be "The Girl I Can't Forget". On songs like this, Fountains of Wayne is like the comedian whose jokes are just so technical or pun-heavy or otherwise groan-worthy that you know you should boo them off the stage, but you can't help but end up respecting and laughing uproariously at.

You know you're in for a ride when a song starts with a line whose rhyme scheme is this involved and clever - "well, she picked me up in German car / and we went downtown to Irish bar / where I drank some beer from a plastic cup / until I had some trouble standing up". The chorus reminds us that this is "the night I can't remember / with the girl I can't forget" and the song's happy ending includes the ridiculous interior rhyme narrative wherein our narrator relates that his girl "never fails / to tell the tale / of the night she had to post my bail" - it's that kind of song. But it's also an unmistakably lovable shaggy dog story about a guy who get's sloppy drunk of the first date and worries he's blown his chance with a great girl but somehow manages to salvage it. If it were entirely sappy or solely clever, the song would wear thin within a few listens but it doesn't. Even on this B-Side collection throwaway FoW takes the time to make a song good enough to worm its way onto playlists (and shower singalong setlists) for years to come.

5. Michael And Heather At The Baggage Claim  Buy Traffic And Weather or Sky Full of Holes for $5!
Finally, we come to the end of our Fountains of Wayne exploration and there's no better song to go out on than this little gem from 2007's Traffic And Weather. One final strength of the band that I'd like to share with you is their ability to be unerringly sweet and lush without ever being embarrassing or treacly - it's a skill I enjoy since I'm a romantic at heart but a cynic by trade and it's often hard to balance those competing impulses.

Not only is "Michael And Heather At The Baggage Claim" a sweet song - it's one of those looks at modern life that manages to wring incredible meaning and insight from the most quotidian elements. Obviously a love song, "Michael And Heather" tracks the journey of one couple as they search for lost luggage and take a shuttle bus through an airport. It's a situation we've all been in - "a long, long day" where we'd rather "just be on our way" but we can't escape this fluorescent hell. In this case they're frazzled and fed-up and ready to explode from frustration at a series of those inconveniences and boring and soul-sapping realities that come with nearly any modern endeavor. The song floats by on happy acoustic guitar and falsetto while the two protagonists manage to put all this out of their mind and draw strength and succor from each's love of the other. It's an action that seems somehow heroic, given the context and reminds us that real tests of love aren't rain-soaked kisses or dramatic declarations but rather those unglamorous but deeply reassuring feelings of closeness in life's many frustrating detours. This is a band that's eager to remind us that, over the long haul, lovable beats flashy every time

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