Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)

If Mike Nichols were making The Graduate in 2011, he might well ask Fountains of Wayne to provide music. Listen to “The Summer Place” with its Updikean compendium of the discontents of the highest tax bracket, the opening track on the band’s fifth album Sky Full of Holes. “The Summer Place” features a protagonist who waxes nostalgic for her days as a teenage shoplifter while downing large quantities of ‘shrooms to stave off the tedium of life at forty. Briskly paced, “Summer” even suggest Nichol’s original Greek chorus Simon and Garfunkel with its “Hazy Shade of Winter” syncopated urgency.

For fifteen years, over the course of five albums, Fountains of Wayne have delivered well-crafted pop-rock gems with clever, literate lyrics that don’t necessarily shortchange deeper emotions or social commentary. Their second album Utopia Parkway remains a personal favorite. If I’ve played “Troubled Times” or “Amity Gardens” once I’ve played them five hundred times. Welcome Interstate Managers was a worthy successor, yielding their one truly big hit song, “Stacey’s Mom.” Their last record, 2007’s Traffic and Weather, was a comparatively lackluster affair, but Sky Full of Holes finds them in peak pop form while aging gracefully with their protagonists as well as their audience.

Consequently, nothing on Sky Full of Holes has the adolescent nerd preoccupations of Utopia Parkway’s “Red Dragon Tattoo.” The dilemmas of Sky’s characters are more consequential than tattoo selection. In “Action Hero” Chris Collingwood spares the sarcasm button for an empathetic look at a family man living a Walter Mitty existence. But what at first sounds like a simple escapist fantasy is finally the tale of a father confronting real health issues, strapped to an EKG monitor at Mt. Sinai Hospital. Collingwood’s reedy alto, as always, betrays little in terms of obvious emotional range. But by letting his and Adam Schlesinger’s sharply observed lyrics speak for themselves, Collingwood’s discretion speaks volumes.

“Richie and Ruben” isn’t so much about the two so-named boho-charlatans as it is about the narrator who’s fallen for their schemes since their teenage years. Blown up metaphorically, Richie and Ruben might as well be Goldman and Sachs - as listeners, we share with the protagonist a feeling of betrayal and astonishment, as much for our own gullibility as their treachery. The recording is detailed, right down to the hand-claps and the ascending piano lick on the choruses - Fountains of Wayne sound a little like Steely Dan without the jazz pretensions.

“Acela” is about another c character, this time by love. An anticipated rendezvous with a girl only results in a lonely high-speed train ride from Manhattan to Boston. Densely detailed, funny as it is sad, “Acela’s” is accented by the stinging guitar of Jody Porter. Often viewed as Collingwood, Schlesinger and some other guys, Porter’s Harrison-Clapton-Easton inspired guitar work is a reminder that Fountains of Wayne are a real band, not just a front for two songwriters.

“Dip in the Ocean” is a McCartney-esque rocker that’s a working class version of ‘The Summer Place.” It successfully celebrates and satirizes the modest pleasures of middle class vacationers. “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart” is a folk-punk romp that updates early Nick Lowe. “Radio Bar” is so catchy it’s silly. Thematically, it’s a little closer to the band’s early material; these characters are twenty-somethings wasting away in a bar that plays “The Joker” over and over. Even here, it’s clear the appeals of post-adolescent languishing are fading; as soon as our hero hits it off with a girl he’s gone (“it’s all for the radio bar”). The song’s whacked out combination of Tom Waits perspective and Neil Diamond pop fluff (the horns sound like "Sweet Caroline" gone ska) is crazy infectious.

Workingman’s Hands” melds country and the gorgeous guitar sounds of the third Velvet Underground album to a lyric that captures both the dignity and quiet desperation of working class life. The songs’ pregnant, abrupt musical ending, especially combined with a lyric (“the old iron gate could use some fresh paint”) suggests the cyclical nature of work.

The grown up Fountains of Wayne is also highlighted on songs like “I Hate to See You Like This,” a sincere song about depression (at first I heard a line like “c’mon give me a kiss” as too opportunistic and shallow, only to realize that Eros is just a way we reach out when we feel desperate), or “Firelight Waltz” a Pogues gone Jersey serenade to Mary, residing in a homeless shelter or hobo jungle, who takes a shot of whiskey, hears an old familiar song and is moved to dance.

Even the failures on Sky Full of Holes are fetching. “Road Song” is a cliché within a cliché that can’t quite escape its meta-mess. The tune is lovely, but unless this is an imaginary band Collingwood is singing about (if so, why?) it’s hard to buy that his distant beloved (for whom he’s writing a ‘road song’) would care that he’s “no Steve Perry.” “Road Song” runs out of gas trying to cram too many cute lines into a song.

Musically, fifteen years have seen a slight shift to richer pop production values and acoustic guitars, but basically this is the same band that cut “Radiation Vibe” and “Leave the Biker.” Lyrically, on the other hand, Fountains of Wayne are still clever, but less facile. The younger Collingwood and Schlesinger wouldn’t have come up with “Cemetery Guns.” In unsentimental, reportorial language, Collingwood (“blue war widow, in the gray raincoat, on the green grass down below”) evokes the lonely, personal tragedies our political folly produces.

Sober stuff. All set to one of Collingwood and Schlesinger’s consistently compelling tunes. Fountains of Wayne rock gentle, but never easy. The songs of Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger on Sky Full of Holes deliver with consummate musicality and deceptive ease. That’s how the great ones do it.

Reverberating: (Reverberating is Under Construction: Seeking feedback on the value of assigning numerical values, grades, etc. to works of art. I mean, did van Gogh top himself because "The Starry Night" got a 5.2? - What do you think about this whole paradigm?)

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