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Fountains of Wayne's perfect pop

By Richard Martin

MAY 10, 1999:  Why do we Americans rely on Britain as our main source of modern pop catharsis? Granted, Blur's flammable "woo-hoo" packs a more satisfying wallop than Imperial Teen's laconic "yoo-hoo," but we're talking mindless, giddy, smile-on-the-face enjoyment here. Blur are not fun. Oasis? Nah. Manic Street Preachers and their multisyllabic five-minute mini-opuses? Pop songs aren't supposed to be that complex, or that long.

Back in 1996, Fountains of Wayne quietly reminded us that a perfect pop tune pulls up just short of the three-minute mark, has choruses that include lines like "Baby, baby, bay-beeee," and includes rhymes like "I wanna sink to the bottom with you/The ocean is big and blue." It's fun music. And for an instant, as the barely post-alternative nation sang along with the New York-based band's "Radiation Vibe," it seemed Americans had come to their senses. We'd accepted Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood as home-team pop songwriting heroes. We'd realized that they knew what it -- whether "it" meant love or going for a drive or whatever -- was all about.

But something went wrong. "Radiation Vibe" was one of five or six pop gems on the Fountains of Wayne debut, and yet somehow the door got slammed after the single crossed the threshold. The band and their record company, Atlantic, made all the right moves, arranging a six-week arena tour as openers for Smashing Pumpkins and working a second single to radio.

"There were a lot of people at our label and our management company who were disappointed that the first record didn't completely go through the roof," recalls Schlesinger, on the phone from Otis, close to his partner's adopted hometown of Northampton. "They were thinking that if they got it up and running, then they could have five or six singles from it. It certainly did well for a debut album, but we didn't turn into Nirvana."

Schlesinger subsequently sidled over to his other, more stylishly rock-oriented band, Ivy, who landed even farther from a mass breakthrough. Ivy got dropped by Atlantic just weeks after releasing their second album, Apartment Life, which was quickly picked up and reissued by Sony. Then it was back to the pop drawing board for Schlesinger and Collingwood, who have returned after three years with an album that reintroduces Fountains of Wayne's sparkling songcraft in the form of something resembling a concept album.

"Chris and I write separately, and after not seeing each other for months we both brought in a batch of songs that all had this strange relation to each other, even though we hadn't discussed at all what we were working on," Schlesinger explains clumsily. "It accidentally became a group of unified songs."

Named after a stretch of potholed highway that runs through the working-class borough of Queens, Utopia Parkway is a theme album about the suburban experience. Sort of. Character sketches abound: there's the hapless cover-band musician in the sunny title track; the jilted Romeo in the downcast "Troubled Times"; and the teens out for a good time in "Laser Show" (where the adolescents succeed) and "Prom Theme" (where they don't). Schlesinger and Collingwood, and their now full-time bandmates Brian Young (drums) and Jody Porter (guitar), produce hooks with the efficiency of a Nissan assembly line, all the while evincing a sly sense of musical humor that matches the mirthful schematic that runs through most of the songs. There's more textural depth here than on the debut, from the psychedelic stammer that characterizes "The Valley of Malls" to the Cole Porter-style tunefulness that informs the impressionistic "Hat and Feet."

If Utopia Parkway is going to rekindle the commercial momentum of "Radiation Vibe," its best bet is probably "Red Dragon Tattoo," with its insistent rhythm and memorable tale of misguided machismo -- "Now I look a little more like that guy from Korn," sings the song's freshly imprinted lover-boy narrator. The first track Atlantic is peddling as a single, however, is "Denise," a jaunty distorted-guitar-driven ditty featuring a Cars-style keyboard riff and lyrics about an alluring yet aloof travel agent.

"We're these two guys writing songs," is how Schlesinger sums up Fountains of Wayne's main mission. "Music to us is not really an outlet for our internal problems and issues. It's more like a form. I don't think we're trying to purge our souls."

Exactly. Leave the purging to introspectives like Belle and Sebastian and Elliott Smith. Fountains of Wayne, as Schlesinger puts it, are about "big sing-along choruses and harmony vocals."

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