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
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
(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.