Blue riffs parkway

Fountains of Wayne wears its melancholy lightly on the near-perfect pop songs of "Utopia Parkway."

Topics: Music,

Anyone who thinks of pop music as lightweight and dismissible has never
tapped into its melancholy. There’s something a little sad about even the
most ebullient pop songs, just as there’s something a little sad about
tufted clouds sailing across a vivid summer sky or sudden bunches of
roadside daffodils. Sometimes it’s just their fleeting joy that gets you: Two
minutes and 50 seconds of bliss go by far too quickly, and the only
solution is to risk wearing out the magic by playing a song again. The best
pop songs have their sadness built right in: It could be just the
inflection a singer puts on a single word, the way a sustained guitar note
abruptly dips down like the last fall leaf, a drum roll that conjures the
lonely curve of a wave. It’s a depressing concept only if you don’t accept
that music made with love demands something of the listener as well.
Perhaps for the same reason the French call the peak of sexual pleasure
“the little death,” the perfect pop song has to take a little something out
of you.

“Utopia Parkway,” the second album of just-about-perfect pop songs from
Fountains of Wayne, wears its melancholy lightly, like a windbreaker. Adam
Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, who write all the band’s material, are
smart lyricists who also seem exceptionally secure. There’s no desperation
in their cleverness, no hint of tab-A-into-slot-B methodology in their
rhyme schemes. “Sick Day,” one of the most moving songs on their first,
self-titled LP, sketches a picture of working girls on their way to the
office en masse, crossing under the harbor tunnel in their cars and on
public transportation, their workaday ennui both a source of weird
electricity and a badge of solidarity: “They’re all chewing gum and
laughing at the voice on the crackling radio station/lead us not into Penn
Station, ’cause the best part’s just begun.” Schlesinger and Collingwood
know how to slip a complex lyric into a compact musical phrase and make it
sound perfectly natural, in the tradition of the best Burt Bacharach and
Hal David collaborations, and their smudgy, saffron-hued harmonies add
extra layers of depth.



The songs on “Utopia Parkway” follow in a similar vein, but if anything
they’re even more imaginative melodically, and they sound richer.
Schlesinger and Collingwood, who played and sang everything themselves on
the first LP with the help of a tiny handful of supporting musicians, are
now the core of a proper band, having added Jody Porter on guitar and Brian
Young on drums. The new blood probably accounts for the more varied
textures here. The guitars in particular (played by Porter, Collingwood and
Schlesinger) roam wild and free across the range — there’s no discernible
unifying guitar “sound” on “Utopia Parkway,” but that means there’s no room
for boredom, either. The guitars are lanky and slope-shouldered (yet
absolutely confident) on the hesitantly optimistic title track, feral and
guttural on “The Valley of Malls,” with phrases spun out like epitaphs read
off a row of tombstones.

And thematically, Fountains of Wayne’s songs are even harder to nail down.
Sometimes even good pop songs practically provide you with an X-ray view of
how they were written: Someone came up with an intriguing concept or
phrase, matched it up with a riff that magically emerged while fooling
around, and eureka — a song is born. But Collingwood and Schlesinger are a
breed apart, two songwriters you can never see right through. It’s as if
their songs have been grown, not built, from the inside out — they change
shape as you listen to them. “Red Dragon Tattoo,” sung from the point of
view of a guy who’s still stinging from the needle, measures the length to
which a guy will go to impress a girl: “Red dragoon tattoo is just about on
me/I got it for you, so now do you want me?” Collingwood — Fountains of
Wayne’s lead singer — asks the question with a mix of defiance and
timidity, but for all the self-doubt in the lyrics (“I’m fit to be dyed, am
I fit to have you?”), there’s also a kind of triumph built into the
hand-claps and the chugging self-assurance of the guitars. The deed is done,
whether she’ll have him or not — but wouldn’t it be nice if she came
around?

Fountains of Wayne never take their wit too seriously, yet they never throw
it around casually, either. Looking at the words to “Prom Theme” — an
elegy for that mythical “last night” in every American teenager’s life –
you might think Collingwood and Schlesinger are just being smart alecks:
“We’ll pass out on the beach/Our keys just out of reach/And soon we’ll say
goodbye/Then we’ll work until we die.” But Collingwood sings that last line
without even a glimmer of irony, recognizing that it’s somewhat true, but
not really, and moving on. It’s the chorus that captures the real heartache
of the song: “But tonight we feel like we’re stars/We’ll play our air
guitars.” “Prom Theme” isn’t laden with nostalgia, nor does it brutally
tell it like it is (who needs a song like that?). Collingwood and
Schlesinger have draped its mournful melody in strings — in terms of its
sound and mood, it really could be a prom theme — yet it stops far
short of being cloying. “Prom Theme” doesn’t pull out all the cheap tricks,
conjuring memories of bad dresses and clinging to your date during
that goddamn “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead, it breaks the whole experience
down to its most essential elements. Most of us couldn’t have cared less
about “Stairway to Heaven”; it was the clinging that meant the world.

As good as they are at writing lyrics, Fountains of Wayne know how to do
something that’s far more difficult: tell a story with music. “It Must Be
Summer” — in which a guy goes out looking for his girl and can’t find her
anywhere — plays Beach Boys exuberance against the crushing disappointment
you hear in Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.” “Hat and Feet” riffs on a cartoon
image — the unwitting bloke who’s been flattened by a falling anvil or
piano — but in this case it’s a girl’s cruel heart that’s done the damage.
The guitars, wrought into acoustic question marks, seem to wonder
aloud, “How could I have let this happen?” It’s a sweet little song, so
gentle and rounded in its perfection, that only when it’s over do you
realize that it’s also taken something out of you. It’s just a little
death, and it hardly hurts at all.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>