I think that it was Tolstoy who said that all crappy albums are crappy in the same way, but no two great albums are alike. Or start alike, for that matter.
Over a chugging guitar, Welcome Interstate Managers starts like this:
He was killed by a cellular phone explosion
They scattered his ashes across the ocean
The water was used to make baby lotion
The wheels of promotion were set into motion.
That’s the opening quatrain from “Mexican Wine,” one of the many ridiculously catchy songs on Fountains of Wayne’s latest album. Let me set this straight: This is going to go down as a guitar-pop classic, smack dab in the midst of the pantheon with any Big Star, dBs, Posies, etc. record you might want to name.
After two albums that only hinted at their songwriting potential, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger have let it all hang out with a series of songs about unknowing losers, uncaring waitresses, unsupervised kids, unrequited lovers and unrepentant drinkers. Especially that last. After they start out by offering us another glass of that Mexican wine, they introduce us to a guy in “Bright Future in Sales” who says he’s gonna get his shit together, but he’s really just gonna get another drink. The narrator in “No Better Place” points out that “It may be the whisky talking/ But the whisky says I miss you every day.” And when someone wants just a cup of coffee, the waitress is nowhere to be found.
As usual with post-modern post-millennial pop bands, it’s fun to play spot the influence/rip-off/homage. The MILF song “Stacey’s Mom” sounds like classic early Cars, replete with handclaps on the last chorus; “Halley’s Waitress” is the kind of faux-soul that Squeeze used to do; “No Better Place” jangles like the dBs, “Little Red Light” zooms like Rockpile, and “Supercollider” is built on a alley just off of Abbey Road. Best of all, for the first time it sounds like Fountains of Wayne have removed the ironic quotes from around their rock songs. On their eponymous 1996 debut and the 1999 follow-up, Utopia Parkway, their rockers always felt kind of tentative and forced — you know, like too-smart people sometimes do when they up the tempo and volume. But now they feel joyful, so much so that you’ll start singing “No, the little red light’s not blinking/ On my big black Radio Shack digital portable phone/ Oh no” before you realize that the fact that the little red light’s not blinking is breaking the singer’s heart.
What breaks my heart is that due to the Clear Channelization of radio, an album full of what should be great radio songs will probably never get heard ‘cos it doesn’t fall into any preconceived narrowcasting demographic. It ain’t that easy to make this type of pop music — as the man (either Tolstoy or St. Hubbins) said, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever,” and as Liz Phair knows, that line gets narrower all the time. Not coincidentally, it’s also the line between smart production and overproduction. Every vocal harmony, guitar riff (especially the backwards ones) and keyboard part is perfectly placed — always supporting the song and never overwhelming it. The production is about the songs, not vice versa.
The biggest compliment I can give a record in 2003 is this: Welcome Interstate Managers is an album you should actually buy, not download. This is exactly the album that should be blasting from car radios all summer. And — big sigh — it won’t, it won’t.
. . .
As published in Neumu, July 21, 2003