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My most formative years were spent on the mean streets of New Providence, N.J., so you might take me for a big Springsteen fan. But there you’d be oh so wrong. I could never really buy into the E Streeters’ glockenspiel epics, because the stakes of the lives I grew up around just didn’t seem all that high. There were tales of girls ‘n’ cars aplenty, but they weren’t exactly Boss-worthy: Did you see Lisa, Debbie, and Denise got matching Camaros with their initials painted on the door? Carla’s dad’s afraid she’s gonna get knocked up if she goes away to college; he’ll give her a BMW if she stays in-state. Sure, mine was a town full of losers and some of us were pulling out of there to win, but what was winning? Getting Mom and Dad to cart all your crap over to Bucknell?
My Garden State, in other words, was exactly the way it is in a Fountains of Wayne song. Named for a legendary Route 46 lawn-ornament emporium that in the off-season turns into a wondrous mirror maze of the god-awfulest predecorated plastic Christmas trees you’ve ever seen, the Fountains have become the power-pop bards not just of Jersey but of the whole workaday Northeast. The title of their third album pretty much gives the game away: A special event has been planned for your enjoyment, but no half-crazed barker chants, “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends,” and no marquee advertises “Maximum R&B.” Instead, you imagine a placard on a brass easel outside a meeting room at one of your better motels: “Welcome Interstate Managers.” You can practically hear the water pitchers sweating into the tablecloths.
Half-full, half-empty, who caresdoes it really matter when the glass is so small? Well, it should. Most everybody you know leads an existence drenched in insignificance. And the self-mythologizing, self-aggrandizing types who compose the rock-star talent pool have ill served America’s most popular lifestyle option. With all apologies to the Boss, the little guy doesn’t need to have his joys and woes bloated to unrecognizable proportions; in the songs of FoW’s Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, folks who normally pass without notice at last receive their honest due. A typical Fountains protagonist isn’t born to run; he’s born to run out of gas.
What Schlesinger and Collingwood have understood ever since their band’s 1996 debut is that lives devoid of significance aren’t devoid of substance. Texture and humor, even genuine pathos and beauty, are there to be teased out by the observant troubadour. And so just as FoW once brought us portraits of lads wishing they had the same pull with the ladies as tattooed bikers and Spanish stoners, sketches of Connecticut boys journeying downtown for some laser Floyd, and documents of the rich inner lives of those who would set the world on fire with their lousy cover bands or raise stocking-stuffer aliens in their bathtubs, “Welcome Interstate Managers” brings us a new crew of losers, larkers, and fantasists.
There are no great claims to be made for Schlesinger and Collingwood as innovators, but they are terrific craftsmen, literate across a gamut of immediately appealing pop-rock styles. And they squeeze more out of the music that everyone’s used to than anyone has any right to expect. Masters of song form who never simply show off and only rarely slip into mere formalism, they know precisely how far to push a novelty without making it sound Canadian (i.e., smug, nutty, and cute). “Halley’s Waitress,” for example, perched daringly on the slender conceit of restaurant service that runs on astronomical time, turns out to be one of “Welcome Interstate Managers”‘ strongest songs. Assisted by guitarist Jody Porter, drummer Brian Young, and producer Mike Denneen, the Fountains principals slyly insinuate sonic tropes from the golden age of the waiting-room instrumental: There’s spare, Barry DeVorzon-style piano, ticking hand percussion, hollow pizzicato, and ethereal backing vocals that bleed into a patch of muted horns. But the pièce de résistance is a clipped wah guitar stripped of all suggestion except that of the passing seconds.
Ordinary lives, of course, are built around blocks of wasted time: traffic jams that don’t end and phone calls that don’t come (“Little Red Light”); dead-end jobs, blue-collar and white- (“Hackensack,” “Hey Julie”); bad weather that keeps you home even though you’ve got no place to go (“Valley Winter Song”). But a moment can also open up to fill an entire future with illusory promise. “All Kinds of Time” plumbs the satori a quarterback finds between the snap and the pass. If it isn’t as great a feat of the literary expansion of time as Proust’s meisterwerk, it’s gotta be as good as that Susan Minot novella I haven’t read that unfolds within the space of a single blowjob.
America’s smartest dumb rock critic, Fargo Rock City scribe Chuck Klosterman, once remarked that folks in our line of work have trouble distinguishing between what we like and what’s important. Critics regularly say something’s great just because we happen to enjoy it. (Klosterman himself is spared this confusion: His favorite band is Kiss.) I’ll try to keep my judgments straight, but understand that my love of Fountains of Wayne is irrationally hugeway out of proportion to their standing in the world. I figure Fountains of Wayne to be the greatest least-important band in the universe, and I probably haven’t taken a road trip of more than 150 miles anytime in the past four years without bringing 1999’s Utopia Parkway along.
So it pains me immeasurably to report that “Welcome Interstate Managers” is not the tip-to-tail masterpiece I’d hoped the band could pull off a second time. Part of the trouble is length: Tracks 3 through 10 form as perfect a suite as anyone could hope for, but the album didn’t need to last nearly an hour. A balanced and varied set that doesn’t bask in past glories and doesn’t stray from the band’s emotional center, these eight songs clock in at 28 minutes; modest padding was all that was required. And the first couple of tunes on the disc could have been made to pass muster. But “Mexican Wine,” otherwise lead-single material, is undone by a lazy lyric that features a senselessly glib first verse (“He was killed by a cellular phone explosion/They scattered his ashes across the ocean/The water was used to make baby lotion…”). And “Bright Future in Sales” needs only a little tweaking of title and lyricas long as talk of a “bright future” summons the image of Timbuk 3’s seraped, TV-strapped jackass, the phrase should be avoided.
Though the rueful, embittered “No Better Place” boasts a couplet worthy of Roger Miller (“And it may be the whiskey talking/But the whiskey says I miss you every day”), when FoW go country for real, “Hung Up on You” cries out to be saved for a far-off B-sides compilation I’d still be happy to buy. There have been enough Fountains of Wayne songs about bourbon, subways, and ungainly motor vehicles that some of the classic themes are starting to get a bit crowded. But the most dispiriting rehashing is “Fire Island,” a pretty good song about a high-school rite of passage that treads recklessly on the turf of a truly great one: Utopia Parkway’s “Prom Theme.”
If the new disc is winning better reviews than its predecessor, chalk it up to critical overcompensation. Even those who liked Utopia Parkway from the get-go are likely to be somewhat astonished by its staying power; it’s a record that, once familiar, never feels as slight as it did when you still had the shrink-wrap balled up on the dashboard. And the true believers that album made of Fountains of Wayne’s casual fans are generally unable to restrain delusions that a smattering of good press could break this band big.
But it won’t happen. A lack of what we used to call “accessibility” isn’t what keeps a band underground anymore, and a hummable, radio-friendly sound is no guarantee of making it onto rock airwaves that seethe with the callow anger of therapy metal. Radio pop just doesn’t sound the way it used to, and, like it or not, FoW are making records for a demographic whose interest in music is waning.
Schlesinger and Collingwood know this all too well, and “Welcome Interstate Managers”‘ lovely minutelong coda seems to find them making peace with the reduced circumstances brought on by the insularity of middle age. “Yours and Mine” is ostensibly a pleasant two-verse vignette of shared domestic calm (“It’s Book Review and Face the Nation time”), but it’s also an oblique farewell to the sorts of people the songwriters and their devotees no longer are. In seven years, people change, grow up, and move away. Lives stay little, but they settle into different patternsand cars that used to drive the length of the strip mall to pull up in front of the record store now never get past the Stop & Shop. CP