Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fountains of Wayne

Imagine it's Super Bowl Sunday 1997 (Super Bowl XXXI, to be precise, where Brett Farve's Packers bested Drew Bledsoe's Patriots), and you're at the War Memorial in Rochester, N.Y. (which would be renovated and renamed Blue Cross Arena the next year) to see the Smashing Pumpkins for the second time on their landmark Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness Tour (the same tour which included the overdose of touring keyboardist/drummer Jonathan Melvoin and arrest of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain). Amid this backdrop, you'd think the opening band would hardly be one of the notable highlights. And yet, on that night, a crisp, pop-rock act quartet from New York, N.Y. aptly set the stage – not only for the then-peaking Pumpkins – but also for their own career, one that would ultimately extend much longer than the prog-rock headliners. That opening band your blogger encountered nearly a decade and a half ago was, of course, this week's profilees – Fountains of Wayne – who released their fifth full-length studio production, Sky Full of Holes, on August 2 on Yep Rock Records.

You've probably heard much more material from Fountains of Wayne and it's composite members than you realize. Not only did their debut, self-titled in release in 1996 – which they were promoting on that tour with the Smashing Pumpkins – fostered two relatively popular singles on '90s alternative radio in "Radiation Vibe" and "Sink to the Bottom." Meanwhile, the tongue-in-cheek "Stacey's Mom" off the group's signature Welcome Interstate Managers in 2003 reached #21 on the overall pop music charts. Much earlier, bassist and co-songwriter Adam Schlesinger wrote much of the 60's-themed pop for the fictional band, The Wonders, in Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do!, including the catchy title track. Schlesinger also arranged the somewhat surprising collection of talent of middle Hanson brother Taylor, former Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos to form the even poppier Tinted Windows supergroup in 2009. And he just recently wrapped duties at the knobs for emerging Canadian classic rockers The Sheepdogs, who will be reviewed here next week.

Contained in all this context is the continually steady work of Schlesinger's main effort, Fountains of Wayne. Along with fellow songwriter and frontman/guitarist Chris Collingwood, the four-piece consistently churns out eminently accessible, vintage-sounding pop rock, the kind Hanks attempted to chronicle in his 1996 film, albeit with a bit more alternative crunch and distortion, along with much of the Weezer catalog. Not much is different on the 13 tracks of Sky Full of Holes in terms of songwriting approach, although the outfit weaves in much more acoustic guitar than on previous outings, which isn't a bad thing.

The arch of the Collingwood/Schlesinger oeuvre is relentlessly narrative, abounding with characters – both named and otherwise – events and settings. The same is true here, with tales of summer cottages, high-speed trains and cemetery funerals and the characters that inhabit them, all awash in a hooky veneer of power pop polish. And if classic rock legends like the Allman Brothers Band and the Marshall Tucker Band defined the southern rock sub-genre, then Schlesinger and Collingwood might be dubbed northeastern rock, with references to places and situations spanning from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania throughout their catalog. This background makes Sky Full of Holes' third cut so familiar: the duo's ode to Amtrak's quasi-high speed train along the Northeast Corridor, the Acela (for which the track is titled). With the same bluesy trot of the New Pornographers' "All the Old Showstoppers" or Fiona Apple's "Criminal," Collingwood explores the corridor through the journey of a slightly-bored business traveler with trademark witticism, through lyrics such as:

There's a train on a track, painted silver, blue and black /
Heading to Massachusetts and then it's coming back

And we're flying through Rhode Island, the conductor calls me "sir" /
For your information it's South Station at about 11:22

Even if you're no railfan like this blogger, it's a fitting tribute to one of the Northeast's most identifiable elements.

The narrative expedition continues like a book of unrelated short stories. We hear about the unsettled life of a beach cottage dweller in the leadoff, "The Summer Place," a warning about the failed entrepreneurial tandem of "Richie and Reuben," and the sad banality of a past-his-prime "Action Hero." Across these tracks and others, Collingwood layers more acoustic guitar foundation than he has on past records, allowing lead guitarist Jody Porter to cover the crunch which is recurrent in much of the band's sound. At the same time, Collingwood's nasal pitch is well-balanced counterpoint to the group's persistent glean. With a timbre closest to former Oasis and current Beady Eye lead singer Liam Gallagher – a resemblance Collingwood himself mocked on "Elevator Up" on the 2005 b-sides collection, Out of State Plates – the Fountains' frontman sounds closest to his British counterpart on lines like, "he never gave her the proper respect" off "The Summer Place" or "Acela's" "there's a girl on a train leaning on the window pane."

Solid material finds it way throughout the collection, on deeper cuts like the endearing "A Road Song" – which explicitly acknowledges the cliched nature of a tour bus devotional – the regimental ballad "Cemetery Guns," which contributes the record's title line, and "Radio Bar," where the band confronts the pop culture absurdity of "Stacey's Mom" during the bridge, as Collingwood comments:

They put our song in the jukebox / It was a hit with the drunk jocks /
Even the guys with the dreadlocks sang along at the Radio Bar

It's a relatively sublime nod that while the quartet appreciates the short burst of fame – and likely infusion of cash monies – that accompanied its most successful single, it will not be defined by the fading glow of a novelty number. With more thorough and intelligent collections like Sky Full of Holes in the future, Fountains of Wayne will have no trouble achieving just that.

Come for: "Acela"
Stay for: "Richie and Reuben"
You'll be surprised by: "A Road Song"

No comments:

Post a Comment