In 1996, Ivy bassist/drummer/songwriter Adam Schlesinger turned a longtime friendship into a creative partnership and recorded a marvelous album of rare electric pop wit and ingenuity with singer/guitarist Chris Collingwood. As Fountains of Wayne, with a major label deal through a label co-owned by Schlesinger, James Iha and others, the duo (quickly expanded to a permanent quartet for touring and future work) eclipsed Ivy’s stature. Without exactly reinventing the power pop wheel, Fountains of Wayne (named for a garden equipment store in Wayne, New Jersey that has since been seen in The Sopranos) is a rare marvel of sterling melodies, sharp post-punk playing and lyrics sprung from a winningly laconic attitude and a passive-aggressive nerd’s sardonic sense of humor. Hysterical personal attacks like “Leave the Biker” (“crumbs in his beard from the seafood special”) and “Radiation Vibe” (“he’s just a dumb ape reading Playboy on the couch”) are leavened by such loving critiques as “Joe Rey,” “She’s Got a Problem,” “You Curse at Girls” and “Barbara H.” Either way, the duo finds ways to make genial hate fun, even setting themselves up in “Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight” and “I’ve Got a Flair” (“for getting in your hair and making you crazy”). Whatever a “Survival Car” is, the song by that name rocks like crazy, and “Sick Day” limns the misery of nine-to-five office life in an airy acoustic ballad. Beyond the knowing writing, which makes them seem like regular guys having smirky fun rather than pretentious pop auteurs, the “Don’t Fear the Reaper” coda of “I’ve Got a Flair” proves just how regular — and special — they are. (The UK EP adds the non-album tracks “Karpet King,” “Janice’s Party” and “Imperia,” which are all good tracks but not A-level material.)
After releasing the album, Schlesinger and Collingwood drafted ex-Belltower guitarist Jody Porter and Posies drummer Brian Young and completed a quartet lineup. Schlesinger also added to his creative achievements by writing the catchy (and Oscar-nominated) title tune for Tom Hanks’ retro-rock movie, That Thing You Do. (That side of his career resumed a few years later when he wrote for the Josie and the Pussycats film.)
The suburban-crud-rock-teen-themed Utopia Parkway ups the culture references to entertaining effect, as lyrics mention a custom van and a Lexus, .38 Special CDs, “that guy from Korn,” Puff Daddy, the members of Metallica (at the “Laser Show”) and more. The increase in straightforward romantic songs is a rebuke of sorts to the debut’s bratty antagonism, but the trade-off is more confident self-production and strong playing, which yield bolder sound and expanded stylistic diversity. “Troubled Times” and “Prom Theme” are gorgeous (and essentially unironic) contemplations of youth’s future; “The Senator’s Daughter” and “Lost in Space” are love songs (of sorts). Closer in sound and spirit to the first album, the title track ticks along methodically with a weedy Moog lick the Cars would have laughed off; a pungent synth also wriggles throughout “Red Dragon Tattoo,” an ’80s Brit-hit homage (think Denim) that is simultaneously painfully corny and purely brilliant. And the affectionate wah-wah furiosity of “Go, Hippie” is a fine companion to “Leave the Biker.”
Notwithstanding the numerous references to drinking, the paradox of a redoubled sense of whimsy and an increase in bald sincerity, plus a growing sense of creative ambition and ability, what made the work-obsessed Welcome Interstate Managers the band’s breakthrough was that hoariest of clichés, The Clever Video Starring a Hot Chick. (As much as the band deserves its overdue success, it’s hard not to wish FoW an audience that found its music, not a sideview of Rachel Hunter’s boobie, irresistible.) In any case, “Stacy’s Mom” (Cars-mocking cocksure pubescent lust) did the trick, and carried along with it an album more memorable for “Bright Future in Sales” (drinking, fucking up on the job and riffs from the ghost of the Steve Miller Band), “Halley’s Waitress” (fucking up on the job), “Hey Julie” (romantic complaints about being fucked over at a job), “Little Red Light” (traffic, drinking, working, the horrors of technology) and so on. “Valley Winter Song” is Collingwood’s prettiest melody, a snow-filled romantic reverie that will send you checking the Paul Simon songbook for verification that it’s an original, while the appearance of Christopher Walken in the lyrics of “Hackensack” upholds the band’s name-dropping ingenuity (trivia factoid: there was once a British band randomly named after the NJ city). At 16 songs, the album is too long by a couple, but there are no obvious duds, so reducing it would have been a chore of Solomonic baby-cutting.
Judging from their output, Collingwood and Schlesinger have a pretty old-fashioned work ethic: they don’t record an album until they’ve written enough tunes they deem worthy. To fill the vacuum that nature and a major label with a newly successful act both abhor, they assembled Out-of-State Plates, a two-CD set of B-sides, covers, sampler tracks and outtakes, plus two new songs. As with nearly all odds-and-ends collections, most of the numbers aren’t up to the group’s A game. But the two new tracks (“Maureen,” a paean to a platonic friend who talks too much about her sex life, and “The Girl I Can’t Forget,” whose sunny, horn-flecked sound points to a style Fountains of Wayne would do well to pursue for a whole album) are excellent, and several of the others (“I’ll Do the Driving,” “Places” “Elevator Up,” “Comedienne,” “Kid Gloves,” “Small Favors,” “I Want an Alien for Christmas,” “The Man in the Santa Suit”) are nearly as good. For such prolific and talented songwriters, the covers here (Burt Bacharach, Gene Pitney, Jackson Browne, Aztec Camera, Electric Light Orchestra and Britney Spears) are all first-rate. The album does lack a unified feel, but thanks to the consistently great musicianship, it flows better than most such compilations. And the liner notes provide clever track-by-track commentary and snarky written banter (Adam: “The first few lines of this song were borrowed from an older song…” Chris: “I assume the remaining six million lines are unique to this song”).
Most of the songs on Traffic and Weather have some sort of travel theme: “’92 Subaru,” “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim,” “I-95,” “The Hotel Majestic.” Over a sprightly pop track, “New Routine” tells about moving to a new place, only to find that changes of scenery and language are all external. (“She’s tried Roanoke, Rekjavik, Rome / Says you’re really sweet, but I just want to go home”). “Seatbacks and Traytables” takes a folkish approach to the same subject (“Trade one town for another…Now why did we bother / An X on the calendar square / New city, same stuff”). Even “Yolanda Hayes,” a song about finally meeting the object of a crush, takes place at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The production harks back a bit to Utopia Parkway, with several of the tracks evincing an early ‘70s light pop feel: “Michael and Heather” has enough “bah-ba-bah-bah”s to be mistaken for the Association, while the horns and melody on “Yolanda Hayes” steer close to the DeFranco Family. Traffic and Weather isn’t as seamless as Welcome Interstate Managers; a couple of songs on this one (“Planet of Weed,” “This Better Be Good”) might have been better saved for B-sides. Knowing Collingwood and Schlesinger, though, that level of quality control would’ve delayed the album’s release by a couple of years.