Fountains of Wayne

TrackAlbum
Mexican WineWelcome Interstate Managers
'92 SubaruTraffic And Weather
Red Dragon TattooUtopia Parkway
Yolanda HayesTraffic And Weather
The Summer PlaceSky Full Of Holes
Little Red LightWelcome Interstate Managers
Fire In The CanyonTraffic And Weather
The Girl I Can't ForgetOut-of-State Plates
Valley Winter SongWelcome Interstate Managers
New RoutineTraffic And Weather

Fountains of Wayne photo 1

Fountains of Wayne (l to r):
Chris Collingwood, Jody Porter, Adam Schlesinger, Brian Young

 

 

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Fountains of Wayne playlist

 

Contributor: Preston Williams

If I tried to sell you on a band whose five proper albums name-checked, by my count: 23 cities or towns, 22 specific geographic locations, 10 businesses, 10 kinds/brands of alcohol, eight models of car, eight states, seven bands or musicians, six streets or highways, six movies or actors, six products, five publications, and five TV shows, your first reaction might be, Geez, these guys must be long on gimmicks and short on ideas.

Not so. More novelists than novelty, Fountains of Wayne co-founders Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, whose debut album came out 25 years ago this month, served up writerly pop-rock whose peak character dissections rival Randy Newman, The Kinks and Steely Dan and can seamlessly rub playlist elbows with The Cars, XTC, Crowded House and Nick Lowe.

Named after a since-shuttered New Jersey lawn ornament store, and once dubbed “Bards of the ˈBurbs” by the Village Voice, Fountains of Wayne mined universality from their specificity in turning life’s innocuous moments – a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles, a lovers’ baggage carousel vigil, attempts to flag down an inattentive waitress – into three-minute masterpieces that transcended their setting by cracking you up or bumming you out, sometimes within the same verse.

Fountains of Wayne might not have made the suburbs cool, but they sure made them relatable, bridging the affection of Penny Lane and the derision of Pleasant Valley Sunday via a cast of I-know-a-guy/girl-like-that suburban denizens often oblivious to the futility of their lives.

If you’ve written off Fountains of Wayne, whose final album came out in 2011, as a one-hit wonder whose career consisted of Stacy’s Mom and a bunch of other songs that are not Stacy’s Mom, keep digging. The fluke isn’t that that pubescent fantasy nearly scraped the top 20. The fluke is that at least a half-dozen other gems from the Fountains of Wayne catalog didn’t.

It must be noted that referring to the band, defunct or otherwise, in the past tense is distressing. There can be no reunion. The immensely talented Schlesinger, who played bass and keyboards and lent backup vocals, died in 2020 at age 52 from complications of the coronavirus. He was a six-degrees collaborator with stints in multiple bands (FoW, Ivy, Tinted Windows) and a sprawling list of credits that spanned TV (A Colbert Christmas, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), movies (That Thing You Do! and Music And Lyrics) and Broadway (Cry-Baby), earning him Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony nominations.

My 10 selections might rankle some FoW loyalists because I don’t revere the Fountains Of Wayne debut that’s marking its 25th anniversary this year. It’s spirited, wry and promising, and features the minor hit Radiation Vibe, but it’s more slapdash than their subsequent efforts and, because it was not on my radar at the time, I can judge it free of nostalgia. The acoustic Sick Day, the first of the band’s many Office Space-like ruminations about the discontented cubicle crowd, came closest to making the cut. That song’s “lead us not into Penn Station” line signaled early on that Collingwood and Schlesinger, generally credited as co-writers more out of convenience than actual process, were phrase turners of the first order.

 

So my list starts with the second album, 1999’s Utopia Parkway, named after a road in the New York City borough of Queens, although the narratives stretch well beyond city limits, with songs steeped in malls and laser shows and proms. The pick here is Red Dragon Tattoo, the quintessential Fountains of Wayne song with its jaunty ride, proper name references and clueless protagonist who thinks a tat will up his dating game.

I brought a .38 Special CD collection
Some Bactine to prevent infection
And in case I get queasy
A photo of Easy…Rider

Red dragon tattoo
Is just about on me
I got it for you
So now do you want me?
With nothing to prove
Will you be my honey?
Oh yeah, in you I confide
Red dragon tattoo
I’m fit to be dyed
Am I fit to have you?

Probably not. Listeners who bought 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers for Stacy’s Mom might have wondered what they had gotten themselves into when greeted with the spoken preamble from opener Mexican Wine:

He was killed by a cellular phone explosion
They scattered his ashes across the ocean
The water was used to make baby lotion
The wheels of promotion were set into motion

And later:

She lived alone in a small apartment
Across the street from the health department
She left her pills in the glove compartment
That was the afternoon her heart went

Never have two unlikely deaths and a forced retirement (a pilot was grounded for reading High Times) sounded so sunny with a cheerful trumpet solo accenting the song’s c’est la vie shrug. “I tried to change,” the lyric goes, “but I changed my mind.”

 

Little Red Light, a star turn for guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young (The Posies, The Jesus and Mary Chain), displays the more clamorous side of Fountains of Wayne. The ditched lover in the song faces a horizon of flickering brake lights but is tortured by the fact there are no message lights blinking on his home phone, laptop or cell. Even the broken car radio is no company. It’s the desperation of the Replacements’ Answering Machine times three and a harsh reminder that communication depends not on technology but human relations: “It’s not right/It’s not fair/I’m still a mess/And you still don’t care.”

My third pick off Welcome Interstate Managers is the lovely Valley Winter Song, which seems to be about seasonal affective disorder – “the interstate is choking under salt and dirty sand and it seems the sun is hiding from the moon.” Fountains of Wayne have their share of summer bummer songs, but here you can see your breath as they use a cold-weather scene to explore the nuances of depression.

Collingwood, who in 2016 released a solo album under the name Look Park, does earnest vulnerability quite well throughout the FoW catalog, including on Valley Winter Song and one of my picks off 2007’s Traffic And Weather, Fire In The Canyon. This piano-ushered lament sketches out a fraying partnership (Schlesinger and Collingwood?) and like many Fountains of Wayne songs it takes place in transit: “Was it driving together/ That drove us apart?” Collingwood asks, “Or did we change direction/ Chasing arrows and hearts?”

All four of my selections off Traffic And Weather have a travel theme. ’92 Subaru is about the proud owner of an ordinary sedan tricking out his ride in an attempt to impress the ladies. It’s not a ’92 Subaru, it’s a late ’92 Subaru. The song borrows a piano riff from the Doobie Brothers’ China Grove and pays cockeyed homage to the spoken passage of Van Halen’s Panama, not in regard to imminent female companionship, but by detailing the car’s features:

Pumpin’ in oxygen from some Swiss mountain
Alarm system so confusing you can’t even get in
This thing is a beast
Value will only increase
Been negotiating turns like peace in the Middle East

I’ll posit that ’92 Subaru is the first car song in pop history to be followed on an album by a song about a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Yolanda Hayes is the intriguing woman behind the DMV counter assigned a narrative by the fantasizing customer standing in line, his urge to flirt intensifying as he creeps closer to her window. This ode to customer service representatives opens with guitar squawks that summon the Beatles’ Getting Better, but Yolanda very well could be Lovely Rita’s alluring cousin.

The globe-spinning New Routine, also off Traffic And Weather, documents fruitless wanderlust, with restless roamers thinking that happiness hinges on where they are and not who they are. Just because you bolt Long Island for Liechtenstein doesn’t mean you won’t still be grinding your gears once you get there. Like Red Dragon Tattoo, this is a proper name tour de force that namechecks Carl Reiner, Costco, Mercedes, Reykjavik, and La Quinta hotels, among many other capital-letter entities. If it were a movie, it would be blatant product placement. With Fountains of Wayne, it’s just colorful everyday vernacular appropriated as a verbal playground.

If New Routine is FoW at their most madcap, The Girl I Can’t Forget is the band at its most charming, a Squeeze-like romp about a disaster date who turns out to be The One. This is one FoW song that actually has a happy ending – so no wonder it was relegated to a B-sides collection, 2005’s Out-of-State Plates, whose liner notes capture the banter of old Williams College (Massachusetts) pals Collingwood and Schlesinger as they recall the origins of the album’s scattershot material.

 

The Summer Place, off 2011’s relatively anguished but subtly rewarding Sky Full Of Holes, the band’s final album, is in contention for the best-written song in the canon. It’s loaded with back story of a troubled attention-seeking girl dealing as an adult with the same issues and fractured family relationships that plagued her childhood, all of which comes rushing back with each trip to what from the outside would appear to be an idyllic vacation home. Truth is, “she’s been afraid of the Cuisinart since 1977,” and the painful memories unravel from there:

She ran away back in ˈ78
Just down the beach to the neighbors’
They brought her back after sunset
Her dad said, “Don’t do me any favors”

Even before Schlesinger’s death in 2020, the musical partnership with Collingwood had seemed to run its course. Schlesinger was the booked-solid hired gun and the more muse-driven Collingwood found the pair’s diverging writing interests increasingly difficult to reconcile. There’s a reason why they hadn’t released a new album since 2011.

The band leaves behind a fawning fan base, reams of positive critical reviews and admiration from wordsmiths who understand how hard it is to be simple, evocative and funny. But only someone who deals in words and music can truly grasp how great they were. The ultimate valentine, in fact, comes from alt-country rascal Robbie Fulks, whose five-and-a-half-minute Fountains of Wayne Hotline shows deep and devilish appreciation for the band’s songwriting chops and melodic gifts:

Now I’ve racked my brain
And I’ve looked all around
But I can’t find a way
To freshen my sound
And now who do you call
When you’re down to one musical dime?
Fountains of Wayne Hotline

That hotline is a little red light that should blink for a long time.

 

 

Another 10 songs (not referenced above): The Valley Of Malls, Amity Gardens, No Better Place, Hackensack, Hey Julie, All Kinds Of Time, I’ll Do The Driving, Strapped For Cash, Michael And Heather At The Baggage Claim, Firelight Waltz.

 

 

Fountains of Wayne photo 3

Adam Schlesinger (1967–2020)

 

Fountains of Wayne official website

Fountains of Wayne at Discogs

Look Park official website

Fountains of Wayne biography (Apple Music)

Preston Williams lives in suburban Washington, D.C. A former Washington Post staff writer, he has an innate band-name detector, remains fascinated by the alphabetical symmetry of a Sheryl Crow/Crowded House bill he once saw, and bristles at musical spelling/word choice atrocities like September Gurls and Must of Got Lost. @Preston_Wms

TopperPost #989

5 Comments

  1. Marc Fagel
    Oct 11, 2021

    Great overview of a great band! A number of personal favorites make your list (and a number don’t, which seems fair). Particularly tickled to see The Girl I Can’t Forget, an oft-overlooked b-side that I simply adore, such a pure lyrical and musical delight.

  2. Preston Williams
    Oct 14, 2021

    Thanks very much, Marc. I like hearing that others’ top 10 would look quite different — it’s a testament to FoW’s sturdy catalog. No doubt my top 10 will evolve as well. There are too many good options for that not to be the case….

  3. David Lewis
    Oct 16, 2021

    Stacy’s Mom is one of those perfect singles that perfectly encapsulates an experience of teenager hood. And it’s not aged badly at all. Thanks for this – thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • Preston Williams
      Oct 19, 2021

      Thanks, David. I totally agree on Stacy’s Mom. It highlights a lot of what made them great but at the same time boxed them in unfairly because many knew them for only that one song, and the video overshadowed the tune for some.
      Their top seller ultimately undersold them.

  4. Marc Goldstein
    Oct 19, 2021

    Greetings from a fellow DC suburbanite! FoW and the Beatles are the only two bands whose complete works I own. Like my fellow Marc, I can also say that my own top 10 would have a little overlap with yours, but I’d have to include Radiation Vibe, as it’s the first song of theirs I ever heard. Leave the Biker from the debut is another favorite, and I could go on and on. Thanks for posting this, and I can only hope that some people who aren’t already fans will encounter this and give the band a listen.

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