Kings of This Island Town

Fountains of Wayne

The first thing my 15-year-old daughter usually does when we get in the car is turn on the local “hit music station.” One Saturday last fall, during the top-30 requested songs of the week countdown — consisting mostly of preening soul and hip-hop hybrids mixed with a touch of refried grunge-era stylings — the No. 1 song was one of those cultural confluence moments that they don’t prepare you for in parenting school. We were treated to a refreshingly retro Cars riff and lyrics evoking the long-ago cleverness of Ray Davies. Boomer Pop was back, if only for three minutes and 17 seconds.

“Stacy’s Mom” by the NYC band Fountains of Wayne has since become a top-25 hit nationally, a most-requested video on VH1 and a 2004 Grammy nominee for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group. It marks an overdue appearance to the singles charts by the band, who since 1996 has released three CDs consisting of at least two-dozen almost hits, songs that delight in their melodic and lyrical skill, but songs that for one reason or another missed the zeitgeist of a pop era dominated by glam bump-and-grind and gravelly fuzz-and-whine.

In online and TV interviews done since the June release of “Stacy’s Mom” and the album it comes from, Welcome Interstate Managers, FoW songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood seem to maintain a kind of Zen detachment over the creation of their songs. (“Anytime you hear an artist pontificate about pop songs you want to punch him,” Schlesinger told Hip Online in August.) But with “Stacy’s Mom,” at least, there seems a determined hit-making calculation behind the song’s pop alchemy: one part suburban teen naughtiness (the lyrics tell of a teenage boy’s lust for his girl friend’s mother), one part acceptable classic-pop template (a Cars vibe still providing enough erotic buzz to hang with the manic sexsexsex of Top 40), and one part expert vocalizing (especially in the harmonies of Collingwood and Schlesinger on the song’s hook). Add to that a well-produced and sexy video in ’80s-retro style starring Rachel Hunter, and the thirtysomethings finally get their first hit.

It’s too early to say whether “Stacy’s Mom” will be the first of a string of hits or an anomaly that puts FoW on the list of one-hit or two-hit wonders. But there’s something about the band that remains out-of-sync with the glam and gloat of the cultural zeitgeist. Collingwood and Schlesinger take a low-key “ironic hipster” stance in interviews, in a time when irony is supposedly passé. For example, on Canada’s “Much Music” show in September, they responded to a question about who influenced “Stacy’s Mom” by making a crack about Chris’ mom being in chemotherapy. Their joke flew over the host’s head. If recent pop history is a guide, the collegiate smart-ass geekiness of the whole FoW machine will catch up with the band and slow or stop any further hit-making prowess.

As time passes, however, that probably won’t matter much. Elvis Costello didn’t have as many hit singles in the 1980s as Loverboy or Quarterflash, yet who has more staying power today? When many of the hit-makers of today are footnotes, the consistent quality of the FoW catalog will trump whatever wins the day now. While FoW may not have the right stuff for long-term Top 40 success, the band’s impressive craftsmanship keeps it eligible for long-term “cult status” among discerning pop-music geeks. For long-term critical success, quality is key.

One can usually learn a lot about a band’s quality quotient by checking out its influences, and FoW (which also includes guitarist Jody Porter and ex-Posies drummer Brian Young) cite not only the aforementioned Ray Davies but also Randy Newman. Both Davies and Newman are masters of the potent pop-lyric miniature, a pithy, evocative summation of a life or a philosophy in three verses and chorus, aided by able melodic and hookcraft skills. The Kinks’ Davies, in particular, became a particular passion of Schlesinger and Collingwood while they were developing their musical schtick in college during the ’80s. In an interview with VH1 Online last year, Schlesinger said he loved Davies’ work for “the character portraits he could produce and his use of specific locations in a song.” Newman’s songwriting, Schlesinger told USA Today in August, often showcases the pathos of an “unaware narrator, where you learn more about him than he does himself inside of a few verses.” Take Newman’s signature stories of spunky-but-pathetic Everymen, with Davies’ (and Bruce Springsteen’s) knack for illuminating locations and people within a specified and recognizable area; add to that a talent for melody in the realm of the Beatles and Paul Simon (two other influences credited by the band) and enough forward-thinking awareness of youthful sensibilities to retain a contemporary feel, and you’ve got a band that’s practically tailor-made to be a critical darling among pop-music geeks, if nothing else.

For awhile there, it seemed like that’s about all FoW would get: critical hosannas and not much more. As Alex Chilton’s band Big Star was to the ’70s, FoW would be (on arguably a smaller scale) to the ’90s. The band’s first release Fountains of Wayne, in 1996, earned notice for the MTV video “Radiation Vibe” and the fact that it was co-created by Schlesinger, who’d earned minor fame by writing the theme song to Tom Hanks’ movie about ’60s pop music, That Thing You Do! (which earned him an Oscar nomination). The songs were refreshingly literate and tuneful, but in relation to the band’s later efforts, also had a certain facile slightness that is not uncommon on rookie efforts. The band was still “finding itself” and suffered from too much cheap Gen-X trendiness in the vocals and arrangements.

That’s not to say the first CD is without its significant charms. “Radiation Vibe” opens with a solid hook seemingly calculated for commercial breakthrough — but unlike “Stacy’s Mom,” the track fell short on the pop charts. The lyrics, though, effectively set the tone for the “regular guy” themes that pervade FoW songs: a failed jock with a broken knee comes back to town to rescue an old flame from “a dumb ape reading Playboy on your couch.”

On we go through an insular land of wage-slave schnooks trying to cut any piece of American Pie they can, while maintaining whatever self-respect they can muster. In “Joe Rey,” we meet a Spanish ladies man who’s “not so pretty” and “smokes like a pigeon” but is “cool, cool, cooler than I am.” The working world of “Sick Day” is in the same ballpark as BBC America’s “The Office” or Mike Judge’s film Office Space, with a morning workplace “becoming one again” and a working girl “making the scene with the coffee and cream.” Everywhere there is ennui:

Here is the man pushing paper past her
Thinks up ways to make the day go faster
But the day goes on and on and he dreams of his lawn
And all about the pretty careerist the next cube over

Schlesinger and Collingwood maintain more warmth toward their characters than Newman does — warmth which can veer dangerously close to oversentimentalizing — but part of their gift is that they usually seem to know just where the line is, and rarely cross it. They also have a feminist bent in their lyrics, as songs like “Radiation Vibe,” “Leave The Biker” and “She’s Got A Problem” all reflect empathy for repressed women, and “You Curse At Girls” is a would-be anthem for cutting females some slack: “Each time you curse at girls/You curse a little at yourself/Don’t you know a girl gets angry.”

All in all, a solid debut. But it’s indicative of how relatively minor the album’s impact was, that in December 2003 the Grammy Awards gave FoW a nomination for Best New Artist, seven years after the band’s first major-label release.

By all rights, FoW’s second release, 1999’s Utopia Parkway, should have been the band’s breakout album. It remains the most tuneful, the most consistent and the best produced of the Fountains’ three albums. Lyrically, “Utopia” is a step up from the debut — the wordplay is crisper, clearer, more assured. And with the second album, Schlesinger and Collingwood lay a certain lyrical gauntlet down right off the bat: our grand theme is going to be the stubborn pursuit of small-town, small-time happiness. The title track showcases a local musician in a cover band, “the king of this island town” — or, as a later verse elaborates, “this goddamn town” — armed with childlike enthusiasm his baby doesn’t understand, plus “some paper and a staple gun.”

The CD deftly wanders through a world that, in the words of the Village Voice’s Glenn Kenny, is populated by “white guys who can’t get what they want or what they need, or if they ever do get something along those lines, can’t hold on to it.”

The underdog romanticism continues with songs like “Red Dragon Tattoo,” where Our Hero is getting “dyed” at the local tattoo parlor, in order to impress a girl. The depth of lyricism definitely rivals Davies’ here, as in eight lines we learn things about this guy that might take half-a-dozen pages to fully capture in a book or article:

I hear the man say you want to see the others
A mermaid and heart that says mother
But I don’t know from maritime
And I never did hard time
I brought a .38 Special CD collection
Some Bactine to prevent infection
And in case I get queasy
A photo of Easy … Rider

The tattooed young man is pursuing someone “pretending I’ve never been born.” But now, he looks “a little more like that guy from Korn.” Hope springs eternal, in this goddamn town.

Everything’s permeated with the bittersweet: home in “Amity Gardens” is “a room in the shadow of a funny-looking man”; the bored, aging Mrs. Carver of “A Fine Day For A Parade” pines for the “old, old days” and “clears up her head with bourbon/’Cause beer is so suburban.” And in the beautiful ballad “Prom Theme,” the graduating seniors are reaching for stars and renting expensive cars, but soon will “forget each others’ names” and “work until we die.”

Women remain mysterious, hypnotic figures: “Denise” listens to Puff Daddy and drives a lavender Lexus, while “she controls me” and has “a heart made of gravel”; in “The Senator’s Daughter,” the crush on said daughter causes Our Hero to float away “on oceans of grey-blue water.” In “Lost In Space”, the girl’s “off in a distant place … but I love her anyway.”

“The Valley of Malls” explores a lyrical theme that will get more focus on album three: the materialist aspirations of the working class. A traffic jam headed for shopping is “fighting for the freedom from a common bond/To be a barracuda in the guppy pond.”

FoW’s expert pure pop would be even better executed on Welcome Interstate Managers — but largely because when Atlantic Records dropped the band after the relatively poor sales of “Utopia,” the band went into a lengthy limbo that did not end until the third album (which was released on the S-Curve label) started to emerge in 2002-03.

The layoff, and perhaps the fallout from the band’s failure to achieve commercial breakthrough, may have played a key role in the continuing growth of Schlesinger and Collingwood as lyricists (and as vocalists) on the third album. But one wonders if the CD’s success might limit the band’s trajectory of creative growth — the second single, the album’s opener “Mexican Wine,” has some of the simplest lyrics on the album, and its choice seems an attempt to fit the band into a niche as “the next Smash Mouth.” The song is a trippy, poppy ode to the “fuck it — let’s drink!” attitude, one that teens and young adults will dig … maybe.

Drinking also figures prominently in the album’s second track, “Bright Future In Sales,” an up-tempo and wonderfully evocative look at another capitalist drone: “Seven scotch-and-sodas and the office party/Now I don’t remember where I’m from.” This might’ve been the ideal follow-up single to “Stacy’s Mom,” except Schlesinger and Collingwood elect to cut close to the vulgar bone in the chorus: “I’m gonna get my shit together/’Cause I can’t live like this forever.”

With Welcome Interstate Managers, the band continues its bittersweet lyrical ride, but with hints that there are larger thematic fish to fry, outside the insular world of the New York/New Jersey average dude. In a delightful ode to Zen ease, “All Kinds Of Time,” the band focuses on a world embodied by one well-executed football play: the quarterback takes a step back, while under attack, but “knows that no one can touch him now.” The QB feels “a strange inner peace,” and as he completes a pass, he embraces the completeness of mother, fiancée, father and brothers watching him on a widescreen TV.

The lovely acoustic number “Valley Winter Song” takes us into a wintry New England setting, with more wistful romanticism:

Hey Sweet Annie
Don’t take it so bad
You know the summer’s coming soon
Though the interstate is choking under salt and dirty sand
And it seems the sun is hiding from the moon

FoW’s reach falls a bit short, however, as the CD goes on. Later tracks like the arch almost parody country track, “Hung Up On You,” and the overly hippy-dippy “Peace and Love” and “Supercollider” hurt the album’s overall level of consistency, although there isn’t a real clinker in the bunch. The songwriting has gotten so assured, that the album’s worst track (the country one) can still feature a masterful couplet that goes beyond the often-hackneyed country songwriting of today: “With an appetite for poison/And a suitcase full of dimes.”

As FoW get a well-deserved moment in the industry spotlight at the Grammys this month, a show-business cliché question again seems apropos: Will success spoil Fountains of Wayne? Will the band end up, as Smash Mouth has, diluting its pop talents in the service of mediocre soundtracks and shallow “Entertainment Tonight” packaging? Schlesinger and Collingwood seem to possess a commitment to quality, but in midst of the hype, will they able to call bullshit on the star-making machine when it begins to infringe upon FoW’s artistic strengths? For pop geeks who crave signs of life on the all-too-moribund commercial scene, the survival of Fountains of Wayne is not a trivial matter.