September 2003

Fountains of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers
S-Curve/Virgin Records 90875
Released: 2003

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

When Fountains of Wayne appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show soon after 9/11 and played the Kinks’ "Better Things," they showed both an understanding of rock and roll’s tradition and a faith in its power to heal. They took the song’s hopefulness, gave it their own exuberance, and played it not just as a performance but as a gentle reminder of, well, better things: "Here's wishing you the bluest sky/ And hoping something better comes tomorrow."

The band must have taken those words to heart in the four years since Atlantic Records dropped them after two critically acclaimed discs, Fountains of Wayne and Utopia Parkway, failed to chart . Their newest, Welcome Interstate Managers, is upbeat but realistic, acknowledging life’s little irritations with good humor and a sharp eye. Songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger have a natural talent for melody and a formidable command of post-Beatles pop styles.

Schlesinger wrote the title song for the film "That Thing You Do," and Welcome Interstate Managers has a similar neo-classical pop feel to it. The guitars are a little more distorted and many of the songs have a quicker pulse to them, but the band has a firm grasp on the sound and feel of great pop records from the last 30 or 40 years. You don’t find yourself picking out each influence as it comes along, yet you can hear how well the band has learned its lessons.

The songs on this disc cover a staggering amount of stylistic territory, from post-punk rockers ("Mexican Wine," "Little Red Light") to gorgeously lush ballads ("Hackensack," "Halley’s Waitress"). There’s a touch of Simon and Garfunkle in "Valley Winter Song," and "Halley’s Waitress" has some of the sophistication and commercial savvy of Burt Bacharach (and a wah-wah guitar line that sounds like it was lifted from -- honest -- a Barry White record). Fountains of Wayne play all these styles with ease -- they’re like a terrific cover band that learned how to write great songs.

Some of the strongest songs here tell stories of suburban frustration and the daily grind of dead-end white-collar jobs. Collingwood and Schlesinger spent some time working in temp jobs and they seem to have used that time to soak up every detail of office work, from martinet middle managers to cellular phones. Yet there’s never a feeling of bitterness or condescension towards the characters in these songs or their lives. The singer in the bouncy "Hey Julie" may work for "…a mean little guy/with a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie," but he has his girl to get him through -- and that bad toupee and soup-stained tie tell us a lot about his boss’s shattered dreams.

You’ll get to know people in Welcome Interstate Managers that you run into every day -- waitresses, middle-class high school kids, regular guys who are enduring the pain of a breakup while they sit in a traffic jam. Collingwood and Schlesinger have a great eye for the small details that bring a character or incident into focus. They’re never mean or dismissive. The alcoholic salesman in "Bright Future in Sales" keeps telling himself, "I’m gonna get my shit together/’cause I can’t live like this forever," and it seems like both a delusion and a desperate plea.

Welcome Interstate Managers is packed with brilliant guitar riffs and keyboard lines that bury themselves in your memory. Songs that are already hook-filled are further strengthened by touches like the twangy, pull-off guitar line that runs through "No Better Place." The band’s tribute to the Cars, "Stacey’s Mom," nails every element of that band’s records, including the late-70s-era synth riff in the chorus, which manages to be at once ironic and affectionate. Jody Porter’s guitar work throughout the disc is a wonder -- his short solos are as inventive and melodic as the songs they adorn.

This disc looks like it might be a career-making one for Fountains of Wayne. "Stacey’s Mom" is in heavy rotation on radio, and the song’s very funny video has been running on MTV2. I’ve been listening to the disc every day for almost a month, and I always get something new from it -- and not just sonically, although there’s plenty here to listen to.

Sometimes a disc comes along that reminds me of why I still care about rock and roll and proves to me that all those records I’ve cherished over the years really did have magic in them. Joe Strummer once said that the unwritten message behind every rock and roll song is that it’s great to be alive. That’s how I feel every time I play Welcome Interstate Managers.