Looking back on the band’s biggest album
If you were a pop band roughly as good as The Beatles, 1999 was not the moment for people to properly give a shit.
I don’t know what you hear when you conjure up memories of that year’s soundtrack. But although a scan of its release schedule yields treasure after treasure (69 Love Songs, Play, Black on Both Sides, The Hot Rock, The Slim Shady LP, Things Fall Apart, Mule Variations, Le Tigre, When the Pawn…), when I try to dial into what was actually popular, all I get is one cloud of teen-pop and one cloud of butt-rock. This was not an era for having faith that the most infectious, rewarding music would actually end up reaching its deserved audience.
Like most pop bands of the ‘90s for whom “pop” meant The Beatles and not Britney – Jellyfish, say, or the Pooh Sticks – Fountains of Wayne liked painting a glaze of irony over their polished verse-chorus-verse gems, and throwing them into a kiln full of blazing guitars. Co-leader Adam Schlesinger was Mr. Pastiche – he turned his natural talent for coming up with “vaguely familiar music” (his ASCAP publishing name) into a bananas songster-for-hire résumé not limited to the greatest Beatles pastiche of all time, “That Thing You Do!” He’d been turtle-doving for years in that John/Paul way with Chris Collingwood, himself taken with classic pop but also writers like Martin Amis. Dually credited but writing apart, you spot Collingwood’s songs by his lyrics; he’s a laid-back literateur with a deathly fear of the obvious, while Schlesinger’s more direct words sometimes tiptoe toward making you groan. Collingwood’s voice rescues all potential clichés, however – definitively Gen X, flinty with occasional hints of just-woke-up rasp, it’s the sound of a soul that’s already surrendered, but would never be so gauche as to make a big deal out of it.
VIDEO: Fountains of Wayne “Radiation Vibe”
On the first album, the relationships between the writers and their various tastes are blurrier. Playing everything but bass themselves, they haven’t evolved into their respective personas yet. “Radiation Vibe” is miles away from Collingwood’s fussier Look Park work (he was reportedly always self-conscious about going goofier, as with “Leave the Biker” or “Red Dragon Tattoo”), while Schlesinger’s lyrics have yet to take the Tin Pan Alley-ish directness-and-concision course he’d stay for the rest of his life. But for 1999’s Utopia Parkway, they sharpened their intentions. Cleaner-sounding, more carefully arranged, paying unconcealed tribute to a litany of beloved influences, their music became more anachronistic but also more ambitious than their slacker peers’.
The crunchy melodicism is beefed up by the two players the pair had been waiting for, guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young. And lyrically, it was a kind of Randy Newman shift – character portraits of everyday archetypes who were never exactly sure how they were coming off, though unlike with Newman, the band’s affection for them was unmistakable.
It was one of the countless great records of 1999. And it wasn’t from the indie underground either – FoW were signed to Atlantic, at that early-‘90s moment when a certain kind of guitar band looked like just another payday to industry bigwigs. By 1999, no exec was still pretending to have felt this way. Perhaps Utopia Parkway’s chosen singles – the irresistible, ravenous “Denise” (“she works for Liberty Travel/she’s got a heart made of gravel”) and the unbelievably gorgeous “Troubled Times” (not a character portrait, but written by Chris for Adam and his partner when they were fighting) – were a little too hard and soft respectively to capture the full spectrum of this pop’s power. Still, Album of the Week in People should do something for your sales. It did not, nor did a strenuous tour. The last straw was when the band cut a cheeky cover of “…Baby One More Time” (game recognizes game) and Atlantic suggested they release it as a single. They balked, and were ultimately dropped later that year. Chagrined and unrewarded, the quartet split up, for one of several unwittingly prolonged between-release hiatuses.
This particular limbo was the one from which they almost didn’t return. Schlesinger resumed his duties in the sleek dream-pop outfit Ivy and all manner of moonlighting, and Collingwood played a handful of shows with the ambiguously country Gay Potatoes, who never recorded.
“When we were between labels, it was a little hard on us,” Schlesinger explained to American Songwriter. “It didn’t seem like the future had much in the way of promise.”
Adam and Chris have much public comment about how often these gaps between records came down to revitalizing Chris’ interest.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep doing it”, Collingwood admitted to Pop Entertainment. “At the end of four years of the hardest work I’d ever done in my life… I had nothing to show for it. I was broke, I was demoralized, I was exhausted.”
Schlesinger decided to entice Chris with the promise of laying down one track at a time, and seeing if an album came out of it. The abundance of tunes between his ears having left him less for want, he funded the studio time. Over 2001 and 2002, the quartet began putting together the definitive document of their sound.
One year later, Welcome Interstate Managers was out on Virgin subsidiary S-Curve, and if it didn’t make Fountains of Wayne rich and famous, they were at least quickly guaranteed the baseline infamy of Trivia Question. You know the song – as Cars homages go, it’s got it goin’ on (wah-oh, wah-oh). “Stacy’s Mom” stopped just outside the top 20 on the Hot 100, dragging its parent album up to #115, and establishing a perennial sore spot between the band’s two main members.
“It’s a touchy subject as far as how much of a sense of humor you should have,” Schlesinger told AS. “We’re not trying to be Weird Al Yankovic or Ween. But I do think humor is part of real life, and part of reflecting who we are is sometimes writing songs that make you smile a little bit.”
Though Collingwood is hardly a humorless person, he was nevertheless concerned about the promotion of a song many might regard as a novelty. “I could see exactly what was going to happen, and when it started happening in slow motion it just felt inevitable.”
If you’re not listening carefully, the consistent and sometimes even predictable laffs throughout FoW records – especially Traffic and Weather, for which Collingwood only provided three songs – can seem frivolous, or like a liability. (Schlesinger loved musical jokes too – get a load of “Hailey’s Waitress”, with its lush ‘70s filigrees.) But it always comes down to a juxtaposition, usually with themes you could go very dark with if you thought having no fun at all would get the point across. Obviously, nobody sees the scenario proposed in “Stacy’s Mom” going anywhere serious, but some of their funniest songs are detail-rich portraits of some truly fucked-up lives. They’re never cynical and never sententious – just frank about how many people are scattered across America just trying to get by, making the same mistakes, never seeing a victory outside their little patch of ground. In fact, this seems to be the album’s great theme, from the searing, bright-blue surge of “Mexican Wine” on. An executive (an interstate manager, perhaps?) dies when his cell phone explodes. An elderly woman loses her life to an absent-minded mishap. A pilot gets caught reading High Times and loses his job – but he ends up OK. Maybe you can’t afford the best wine, but hey: you’re still around to savor it, and see how you feel after another glass.
This surging midtempo glow gives way to a kickass supercharge. “Bright Future in Sales” is one of the most harrowing chronicles of alcoholism you’ve ever been compelled to bang your head to. Its subject’s foibles are cataloged in hilariously horrific detail – here’s a privileged screwup holding onto his higher station by his fingertips, singing from yet another moment he could quit the cycle for good. You chuckle at the well-turned phrasing of his appalling day-to-day (“seven scotch and sodas at the office party; now I don’t remember where I’m from”). But the singer, who as usual nails the wry tone perfectly, and this writer, for whom this song is still a big fat rush, both know firsthand that this is some serious, scary shit. You have to be some kind of genius to ace a portrait like this, and turn the narrator’s delusional optimism into something contagious. Once again, it’s a testament to the affection with which Schlesinger reliably wrote. Anyway, the narrator’s not wrong – if you can make it home alive, there’s always a new Day 1 tomorrow.
Then we spill into the greatest song Ric Ocasek never wrote (WAAAH-OHHH, WAAAH-OHHH) Come at me if you like – it runs asphalt-singing circles around “Just What I Needed”. Having provided you a ten-minute power-pop fix, the album now settles in, shifting tones. “Hackensack” sees a lovelorn townie carrying his torch through grueling shifts in his dad’s employ, while the object of his infatuation gets so far away she’s booking movies with Christopher Walken. Maybe Fountains of Wayne weren’t destined for wealth and fame because they just felt too much for the “everybody else” who just can’t seem to get it off the ground. It’s too lovely – even Katy Perry noticed (though related who can say).
So is ”Valley Winter Song”, a second Chris poem after four Adam playlets in a row, lilting and observant in a way his best B-sides (“I Know You Well”, “Kid Gloves”) always were. In between comes “No Better Place”, a textured guitar rock stomp whose subject it’s hard to get a bead on, although “wrapped around your pillow like a prawn” is one of several bits of language that were worth building an entire song around.
VIDEO: Fountains of Wayne “Stacy’s Mom”
Then comes the album’s centerpiece. “Mexican Wine” is about how everything gonna be alright, but its life-affirmation is still filtered through a smirk. Not so with “All Kinds of Time”, a power ballad so straight musically and sincere lyrically a bad line might’ve proven fatal. That wasn’t a possibility, but its conceit almost feels like a joke on its face: a football star is suddenly struck with serenity and agape in the middle of his game-saving play, selflessly reflecting on the family that’s supported him through his ascent, and the comforts his career now affords them. The sweetness and positivity is almost over-the-top, until you stop and recognize that it’s possible – that things could feel this alright even in the middle of pummeling diversion; that everybody has the opportunity to savor the luck of simply being here if, at just the right moment, they stop and think about it. As Robert Christgau pointed out, “nobody has ‘all kinds of time’”, and in the wake of Schlesinger’s 2020 passing – one of COVID’s untimeliest, and completely unexpected – that hard truth resonates. We’re all subject to one big deadline. But there are a whole lot of simply beautiful moments we can enjoy leading up to it, if we all just pause and take a moment to try.
After that, the band careens through a traffic jam, Chris’s voice scraping sparks off the road as he lives the troubles of one more white-collar jamoke falling victim to modern inconveniences. Bemoaning the malfunction of his “big, black Radio Shack digital portable phone”, you note how much better FoW’s references to outdated technology have aged than, say, others’. This nine-to-fiver’s crises are a world apart from the Joe who just wants to get back home to his squeeze and croon “hey, Julie” – another automatic classic, perfect for singing on a ukulele to your one and only. This is one of the best cuts, a love song from that age but for the ages, and it’s followed by four fondly silly ones – the one where Hailey’s waitress (caught up in her own actorly aspirations) never comes back, the one where Chris works out his remaining country inclinations from a lonely payphone, the one where the kids hope the parents never come back from Fire Island (let’s hope they do before that chocolate kills the dog), and the one where the Phish fan beams in cosmic signals as he fumbles with the chords to “Just the Way You Are”. Presto: perfect album. And then, just because they can, they carry on for three songs more.
Fountains of Wayne made two more albums – great albums, for all intents and purposes as good as Welcome Interstate Managers. But both times, the recording process was said to be fraught. “I loved [Adam],” Chris said of his late collaborator to Rolling Stone, “and from my life with him I realized it’s true that people you love can piss you off more than anyone else.”
“We kind of knew it was our Abbey Road,” added guitarist Porter, of their downhearted swan song Sky Full of Holes. To my mind, no matter how world-class catchy their melodies, how universal and immediate their lyrics, how flawless their production and tight their performances, most of the world has yet to find out just how good Fountains of Wayne were.
If the joyous new-wave burst of an unusually brilliant novelty song out of some rando’s radio ends up a gateway for countless future fans, well, I think that’s fine. ‘cuz the sun still shines in the summertime.