En Route To Poptopia

Candy-coated power pop that melts in your hands.

If Fountains of Wayne are nearly peerless it's not just because

they write exquisite guitar-pop songs, but because almost no one else

is. The four-piece led by Oscar-nominated (for the title song to "That

Thing You Do") Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood crown the top of

a small heap, which shouldn't diminish their obvious talents. It's just that

making albums like Utopia Parkway, their second and newest, is a

little like using a rotary telephone -- still useful, though seemingly

obsolete.

Picking up where their eponymous 1996 debut left off, Utopia Parkway

offers up another 14 tracks of nearly perfect power pop. It's true. There's

really almost nothing wrong with Fountains of Wayne pop songs: they're

often funny but never jokey, usually melancholy but rarely morose, and even

the poppiest of these songs doesn't pander.

Though there's nothing with the immediate impact of "Radiation Vibe,"

Utopia still has plenty of charms, chief among them being the

songwriters' abilities to reveal the pathetic sides of romance. Both

"Red Dragon Tattoo"

(RealAudio excerpt) and "Hat and Feet" possess the familiar tang of adolescent

longing and desperation -- not enough to make you cringe, but enough to

make you wince. The former is especially sharp as it chronicles a kid's

journey to Coney Island to get a tattoo in order to, yep, impress a girl.

We learn in the chorus that he's "fit to be dyed" and wish him the best as

he asks, in the bridge, "Will you stop pretending I've never been born /

Now that I look a little more like that guy from Korn." A line that would

just be goofy if they didn't add the almost touching follow-up: "If you

came a little bit closer, you'd see it isn't painted on."

It's this kind of picture perfect detail that sets Fountains of Wayne

apart. Utopia Parkway is full of them: there's a crush named Denise

who's "got a heart made of gravel" and the recognition that "It must be

summer / Cause I'm falling apart." Two explorations of bored Long Island

teen life, "Laser Show" and "The Valley of Malls," fall nicely into

place, too. "Denise"

(RealAudio excerpt) and "Red Dragon Tattoo" are the obvious singles here,

both impossibly tuneful. "Denise" even pulls off a couple "sha la la"s

without wearing out its welcome (or mocking the convention). With the

same mix of full-throttle rockers to wistful ballads as its predecessor,

Utopia Parkway is like a perfect sonic box of chocolates.

Because they have the light, airy qualities that characterize the best

summer pop, Fountains of Wayne albums tend to float away leaving fond

memories and not a whole lot else. Not that this ought to discredit

Schlesinger and Collingwood's obvious craft and command of a (slightly

dated) medium -- they're masters of tchotchke pop: just because it doesn't

serve a purpose doesn't mean it's unnecessary.