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Never, ever put mustard on a corn dog. You hear me? Just don’t do it. In fact, this vastly underappreciated prince of the junk-food kingdom should never be encumbered by a condiment of any kindlet alone bothered by knives or forks or napkins. Slather some glop on one of these boardwalk bad boys and you risk hindering the most religious experience of skee-ball cuisine: the first bite, those one, two, three inches of grease-golden batter, unassuming lukewarm frankfurter, and hard wooden spike that greets teeth with an unwelcome clud. Sure, the remainder of your bliss-blanketed wiener will no doubt be wonderful, but nothing is as life-affirming as that first de-virginizing chomp. Once it’s overand you’re left grinning dumbly, your red, puffed lips encircled by a high-cal sheenall you can do is stare off into a vacation’s sea of flashing lights, lame T-shirt slogans, and underage smokers, and dream about the next one. Life, my friends, doesn’t get much better than that.
Utopia Parkway, the sophomore album from the merry songwriting duo of supercool nerds Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwoodaka Fountains of Wayneis a paper-platterful of 15 musical corn dogs, breezy bursts of song that offer little nutritional value but put the double “e” in tastee nonetheless. What the New York-based band (with the New Jersey state of mind) used as pop frosting for its 1996 self-titled debut albumwhich included instant mood-improver “Radiation Vibe”it uses here to make the whole cake. Utopia Parkwaynamed after a boring thoroughfare running through the heart of Queensis not so much a collection of songs as a gaggle of beyond-happy hooks. (Only one song runs longer than four minutes, and a trio of tunes pulls in well under three.) It’s an album to be played during the long days between mid-May and early September, when you’re picking out your own private patch of sand in Ocean City or Virginia Beach or, for that matter, the sun-starved recesses of your brain. It’s smart, bubble-gum pop for grown-upsWeezer without the ironyand damned if it doesn’t work.
For the retro-grooved title song of Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do, Schlesinger proved he could cleverly imitate the gee-whiz rock of the Archies but still dust the effort with enough contemporary twists to keep matters hip. On Utopia Parkway, Schlesinger revisits his schoolboy crush on Jughead & Co., but, with the influence of Collingwood, winds up penning a few love letters to Ric Ocasek and Jeff Lynne as well. “Red Dragon Tattoo,” about a wannabe punk trying to impress a girl by getting some ink done, shows off a serpentine keyboard line straight out the Cars’ “Shake It Up”-era songbook. “Denise,” with her big hair and boring job as a travel agent, inspires equal parts high-arcing harmonies, cheese-pop keyboards, and hand claps as good as any ELO ever wrought.
The impossible beauty of Fountains of Wayne’s “Radiation Vibe” is somehow matched here by three songs. “Prom Theme,” propelled by a slow wave of stringsa first for the bandfeatures an Alan Parsons blend of orchestration for teen dreamers and wordplay for old-timers, those of us still harboring bitter visions of that infamous night (“We’ll never be the same/We’ll forget each other’s names/We’ll grow old and lose our hair/It’s all downhill from there”). “Troubled Times” is a legitimate weeper, the acoustic-driven tale of star-cross’d lovers mired in the muck of heartache. And the sweetest bite of corn dog on the album, “Go, Hippie,” voiced by a pragmatist unable to embrace the beliefs of modern-day flower children, unveils a sorrowful, forgiving chorus amidst psychedelic guitar wah-wahing. Music, my friends, doesn’t get much more uplifting than this.
There are a few instances on Utopia Parkway where Schlesinger and Collingwood aim for some more juicy junk food but come up with just junk: “Hat and Feet” is a grating gnat of a song absent of a hook but chock full of bad rhymes; and “It Must Be Summer” may taste pretty swell at first, but before longsay, 30 seconds or sothe cut reveals itself to be nothing more than throwaway noise from an early-’80s Andrew McCarthy flick.
Still, if Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys are providing the actual tunes that rustle beach umbrellas in Fenwick Island and Rehoboth these days, then Fountains of Wayne provide the spiritual soundtrack, the natural music whistling through your head as you strut down the boardwalk and think about where you are, where you’ve been, and how you desperately crave a corn dog. Not to mention a powder-drowned funnel cake, which is a different story altogether. CP