Blue riffs parkway

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

Published April 13, 1999 11:19AM (EDT)

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

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.

By Stephanie Zacharek

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

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