Fountains of Wayne Run Dry
A vinyl reissue celebrates the 10th Anniversary of the pop greats’ last studio album Sky Full Of Holes
Bands breaking up is nothing new. Someone hates the road. Someone’s girlfriend or wife hates the road. Or it’s the old trusty saw of, “creative differences.”
Like politicians who disappear because “they want to spend more time with their family,” these unmentioned differences usually mean that the members no longer get along. Money or personal demons is usually the spark. But as we all know from looking at who is back out touring these days, breaking up is not always a permanent situation. Unless someone dies… which is exactly the situation the Fountains of Wayne now find themselves in.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Looking back over all the musical lives lost to COVID-19 in 2020, few losses were as unexpected nor as way-too-early than the sudden death of pop melody writer extraordinaire Adam Schlesinger of the guitar pop quartet, Fountains of Wayne. Hard as it is for fans to believe, the band’ final gasp of impeccable power pop, 2011’s Sky Full of Holes, is now celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2021.
Anyone who has seen the film, That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks 1997 musical fantasy about a one hit wonder band from Erie, Pennsylvania, is familiar with Adam Schlesinger’s gift for melody. Asked to write a…yes, one hit wonder… he came up with the film’s oft-repeated title track. And then of course there’s “Stacy’s Mom,” at #21 their highest charting US single. Formed in 1990 by Schlesinger and Collingwood who’d met at Williams College, Fountains of Wayne was Schlesinger on bass, Chris Collingwood on rhythm guitar, lead guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young. Collingwood and Schlesinger provided the one-two punch of songwriting for the band. It was very clear from the beginning that Schlesinger and Collingwood were two fully formed songwriters with widely diverse styles. Instead of co-writing, the pair brought in their own songs and so, like the Beatles before them, each successive FOW album became a game of “That’s an Adam song” or “That’s a Chris song.” Forced to choose, I’d say it was Adam who came up with the best pure pop hooks and melodies, while Chris tended to work more in the ballad and country rock veins as a songwriter. Collingwood’s subsequent solo debut Look Park confirmed that division of labor.
AUDIO: The Wonders “That Thing You Do!”
In my last interview with Adam, he was not warm, not into it and looking back I was probably the last of several interviews that afternoon. As is common with all gifted melody writers, he had no idea how some of these chord changes came to him. He also wasn’t having any of it when I gushed about how that was a gift. And he was also sick of people implying that catchy upbeat electric guitar pop songs full of hooks were fluffy child’s play, not serious and not to be respected. “Not serious?” That phrase when applied to this band always baffled me. It appears in some of the most ridiculous and widely read FOW reviews. The accusation that FOW were unwilling to get serious and make the truly “great” record they seemed to have in them, is absolute nonsense because the awkwardly titled 2003 release, Welcome Interstate Managers is exactly that. Sky Full of Holes is not far behind.
First coined to describe the music of bands like The Byrds, Beatles, Beach Boys, and later entries like Badfinger and The Raspberries, Power Pop– uber catchy tunes rocked up–can be too sweet, and too cloying for some. But as anyone who’s ever tried can attest, writing hooks in pop songs that grab ears and sell records, may be the hardest kind of songwriting of them all. Coming up with a new version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” ain’t quite as easy as it looks. And while it may seem and sound like kid’s stuff on first listen, the greatest power pop, like greatest cartoons, have a layer—often in the lyrics—meant for adults. Those who have a gift for it like Schlesinger, and who can repeat the trick and not become one hit wonders are a very small and rarified group indeed. Best of all, the band’s best records including Sky Full of Holes are albums, coherent groups of songs not examples—as in the 60’s when power pop was born—of a few singles surrounded by filler.
After being dropped by their first label Atlantic Records after their self-titled debut and its follow-up, Utopia Parkway failed to make a dent in sales or airplay, FOW spent some time apart before reuniting for Welcome Interstate Managers (WIM). Clearly recharged by their time off, the sheer volume of musical ideas and styles on WIM is astonishing and clearly “serious.” “All Kinds of Time” is melodic bliss that spawned the best FOW T Shirt of them all—a football quarterback preparing to throw. From 70’s funk of “Halley’s Waitress” to the Caribbean influences in “Hey Julie” to downcast “Valley Winter Song,” that’s become something of a bluegrass favorite in recent years, WIM was a musical feast. Following the release of Welcome Interstate Managers, the success of the single and particularly the video of “Stacey’s Mom” and a pair of Grammy Award nominations the band seemed to be on a path to success… but it was not to be. The reasons why are many and to me at least, still mysterious. When it’s not the Beatles or doesn’t have an irresistible melody behind it, Power Pop can be an acquired taste. Add to that the fact that FOW came along when rock, in all its kaleidoscopic forms, was rapidly passing as popular music came to be dominated by acts based in rhythm, and you have at least two factors in the band why the band did not become bigger stars.
But then being bigger stars comes with a lot of complications that FOW may not have wanted anyway like incessant touring. While the definition of success is always a moving target and has as many definitions as there those striving for it, FOW definitely fostered a cult of fans, which in many ways is the best kind of success. But that didn’t brighten the band’s collective mood. FOW, who in general wrote upbeat, catchy music, were never a particularly happy band, a fact that was painfully obvious to anyone who saw them live. Like stand-up comedians who have to be funny but who are often troubled underneath, FOW’s grim onstage demeanor hinted at problems that came to include personal demons, depression, and some impossible-to-transcend incompatibility issues.
Watching the band’s only DVD, 2009’s No Better Place: Live in Chicago becomes uncomfortable after about two songs. No one smiles. No one acknowledges the crowd. Jody and Adam go through the motions. Chris is positively inert as a frontman. Even drummer Brian Young looks alternately bored and annoyed. If anything they sometimes became too serious! YouTube videos of the band playing live are exactly the same: scarecrow level body language as they reproduce exact copies of the album tracks. Although I did manage to see several good live shows over the years—where Chris even smiled once or twice—they were most at home in the studio.
It must also be acknowledged up front that FOW, who self-produced their records, always needed an editor. Their albums would have certainly benefitted from the firmer hand and sounder judgements of an outside producer. Their albums were always a track or two too long. And the sequencing, the order of songs from beginning to end always had the same flaw: after an opening barrage of wonderful songs, the quality began to slip away the deeper in you ventured. On WIM, for example, the last five songs could have been excised. But when it came to that opening blast, FOW’s albums were absolutely unbeatable as far as catchy guitar pop tunes are concerned.
To many ears, the band’s recorded finale, Sky Full of Holes, was, given the band’s personal struggles, something of a welcome surprise at the time of its release. In a sure sign of success (at least among music writers), reviews of the record focused on different songs as their favorite. Some writers called the album folky. Others saw it as darker than previous FOW albums. Some called it snappy, while others thought it more slow and sentimental. Although the reasons were diverse, critics all loved it which in itself can be worrisome. How many critical darlings never caught on or stiffed entirely? Another intricately constructed collection with the usual FOW lean—great songs up front, lesser tunes coming later—Sky Full of Holes has some of the band’s finest power pop creations. Rather than being too predictable or “comfortable” as some music critics would have it, tunes like the humorous “Richie and Ruben,” the imaginatively arranged “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” and the straight up, shoulda been HIT, “Action Hero” are FOW at their very best.
Lyrically, the band’s songwriting duo who share the songwriting duties here in a more even way than on WIM, were never sharper. Take the lyrics to “Richie and Ruben” for example: “They opened a boutique they called “Degree”/Together with some kid from F.I.T/Though later it turned out he never quite/Got his degree/Eleven hundred bucks for a ripped up shirt/That came pre-stained with bleach and black dirt/Seemed just a little bit/Too steep to me – e – e – – e – e.” While nothing on Sky Full of Holes changed pop music forever or was proggy, avant or noisy in overly arty ways, these sturdy, familiar chord progressions make for melodic, beautifully arranged and impeccably played guitar pop tunes. Meticulous in execution and lyrically on target, they’re more proof that they’re the little-band-that-could, in ways that continues to elude most songwriters even today.
After Sky Full of Holes (2011), which made it to #37 in the Billboard Top 200 (and #3 on the Independent Albums chart) failed to sell or find airplay—despite being wildly acclaimed by the band’s dedicated fanbase—Fountains of Wayne split. The final live shows were in 2013. While he was in FOW, Schlesinger was part of a band along with the Smashing Pumpkins James Iha and Cheap Trick’s Bun E Carlos that made the 2009 power pop one off, Tinted Windows. After the Fountains split, he worked extensively in television, nabbing several Emmy nominations for music before winning in 2019 as a co-writer of the tune “Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal” from the series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And yet, it’s clear that Schlesinger’s work with FOW will remain his proudest and longest lasting achievement. Pop music? Certainly. But also, an outstanding group of ingenious, easy-to-relate to confections whose melodies, supported by well-honed lyrics, that will live on.
As swiftly as time passes it’s still hard to believe that Sky Full of Holes, FOW’s youngest child has now turned ten years old. In an age when rhythm reigns supreme and songcraft is less respected and becoming an antiquated artform, the absence of Schlesinger’s talent and artistry is keenly felt.
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