Adam Schlesinger wrote the title song for Tom Hanks’ British Invasion-era picture, That Thing You Do!, a canny update of the Beatles’ oral-sex anthem “Please Please Me.” Now that his own band, Fountains of Wayne, has a radio and video hit with “Radiation Vibe,” the first single from its self-titled debut, he’s gaining ground beyond that semi-anonymous achievement.

While the Fountains haven’t totally mastered the melding of optimism and bittersweet that’s marked Marshall Crenshaw as a pop essential for much of his career, neither is the record simply a display of craft and quips. The title image of “Radiation Vibe” may remain forever impenetrable, but whose heart doesn’t jump a bit at the lines “And now it’s time to say what I forgot to say/Baby, baby, baby, come on, what’s wrong?”? At the other end of the disc from that opening grabber stands “Everything’s Ruined,” an ethereal homemade-Pet Sounds cop that warns against ending up in the same position as the narrator of “Radiation.”

Not that japery is too far away on this brisk (under 37 minutes) little wonder. “Survival Car” also pays homage to the Beach Boys, substituting a tank for the 409s and T-Birds of Brian Wilson’s shut-down period for a drive through Central Park. (Oh great, another safety problem for the landmark.) And Crenshaw would have to give a thumbs-up to “Leave the Biker,” which makes a case for sensitive guys (the kind who champion the Hollies, not Dan Fogelberg) while slyly knocking trouble boys who never read “one word that wasn’t in a porno mag.”

While the Fountains are a full-fledged four-piece on the road and in the “Radiation Vibe” video, in the studio Schlesinger and partner/lead singer Chris Collingwood are responsible for almost every note (except bass and a vocal cameo by Dominique Durand, Schlesinger’s bandmate in Ivy). They’re willing to make jokes at the expense of their own pop-obsessionism—the single piano chord that tops off “Leave the Biker” is a “Day in the Life” nod—while planting deadly hooks and droll Cars-style synth bits in the corners.

“She’s Got a Problem” swipes from “My Best Friend’s Girl” to back up its tale of a pal with a habit, probably heroin or alcohol (“Every time she goes outside, she barely gets home alive”). A far cry from Alice in Chains’ growly dope-angst, but every bit as affecting—especially if you’ve known someone like the woman Collingwood’s singing about. Even more subtly touching is “Sick Day,” which captures small details of office life without ever coming out and saying that its central character is preparing herself for an abortion.

At a time when some power-poppers appear all too self-congratulatory, Fountains of Wayne strikes a neat balance between its humor—the group took its name from a store in Wayne, N.J.—and its heartfelt sentiments. The more it plays, the more it seems that that vibe does “shine on, shine on, shine on.”

“Rock and roll’s a loser’s game,” goes a Mott the Hoople line borrowed for an epigram on Dramarama’s 18 Big Ones. It invokes the story of this—surprise—Wayne, N.J., band on two levels. First, these guys were smart enough to draw on such slightly left-field influences while remaining sufficiently modern to gripe about the FM stranglehold of “Classic Rot.” Second, like Ian Hunter, they bet big and lost big.

This collection of semihits and obscurities might well have been titled Work for Food. Singer John Easdale wrote the song by that title for Hi-Fi Sci-Fi, the outfit’s 1993 swan song. Imagining himself a few years past his minor stardom, Easdale sang of pushing a shopping cart full of Dramarama memorabilia, aluminum cans, and his baby blanket. The song roared with power chords, bitterness, and resignation, flipping the rock cliché “keep on rollin’” onto its side.

Those smarts pushed Dramarama way past being a bunch of Creem-savvy revivalists. Easdale was able to both smile and smirk at his childhood recollections and adult dreams, melding the two on tracks like “Wonderamaland” (a remembrance of the kiddie-TV show) and “Emerald City.” A pissed-off idealist, he hit about a dozen cultural targets dead-on with “What Are We Gonna Do?” from the 1991 Vinyl (which came too late to get a release in that format). Having led the band through an Earth Day show at which the concert grounds were trashed by celebrants, Easdale slammed late-Beatles memories together with Guns ‘N Roses bombast to mock post-Band Aid showbiz charity. A masterpiece of disgusted amusement, the song, of course, wasn’t a hit.

Neither was “Last Cigarette,” exactly, although it did gain airplay in scattered markets, including D.C. Nearly spitting over a wall of guitars and ’70s-boogieing piano—”Shut up!” he yells above the din—Easdale raised an eyebrow at the domestic ideal (“You don’t have to hear the headlines, you can hear what Johnny Carson said”) measuring his own progress, or lack of it, against the object of his railing. Nothing else to do but smoke, he concluded. “I know it’s killing me,” but hell, it’s probably not the only thing.

Girls who don’t count sleeping with the radio on as being alone, non-sequitur rhetorical questions, promises of everything, all tied up with bash and riffs and madly catchy hooks, these are the stuff of Dramarama songs. Typically, 18 Big Ones comes a day late and a dollar short—maybe the same buck Easdale passes to a street-corner denizen in “Last Cigarette.” But it also stands as testament to the fact that, whatever else, Dramarama lived up to its end of the bargain.CP