Humor springs eternal in the tunes crafted by Fountains of Wayne, and the 14 tracks on the pop-rock band’s irresistible new album, Traffic and Weather, are no exception.
For example, on the lilting “Planet of Weed,” FoW creates a genial buzz celebrating a peaceable kingdom where there’s not much going on, but there’s also no hatred or greed. In this pleasant pipe dream—stoked by amiable acoustic strumming, Frampton/Ronson-like wah-wah electric guitar, scattered tinkling piano notes, handclaps, jingle bells and gentle “ahh-ahh” backing vocals—there are magazines to read, Doritos to eat and a couch to lay back on.
Traffic and Weather
(Virgin; US: 3 Apr 2007; UK: 2 Apr 2007)
With people talking and messing about in the background, the tune sounds as if it was recorded live, with the musicians making it up as it goes along.
“It pretty much was!” admits 39-year-old bassist-singer Adam Schlesinger with a laugh, before proclaiming the song “the new `Margaritaville.’”
There’s also “Strapped for Cash,” which musically alludes to Supertramp, 10cc and Steely Dan as it tells the tale of a dodgy deadbeat gambler roughed up by six bodybuilders who pull up to his apartment in a Pinto.
“If somebody would put up a couple million bucks, I’d get Martin Scorcese to do the video,” says Schlesinger.
And the Billy Joel “heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack” reference near song’s end?
“I don’t WHAT you’re talkin’ about,” Schlesinger says in mock indignation. “I made that up all by myself.”
Still, despite an appetite for absurdity, Schlesinger makes it clear he and guitarist/singer Chris Collingswood are serious about making music good for more than just a guffaw.
“We try to balance it out,” he says. “I’m the first to admit that sometimes we can cross the line and get silly. But we try to have real emotion in our songs and not have it be a bunch of jokes.”
“New Routine” is arguably the best example on Traffic and Weather, FoW’s first disc since 2003’s exceptional Welcome Interstate Managers CD, which included the Top 40 hit, “Stacy’s Mom.”
On “New Routine,” an American waitress, the boyfriend she acquires after moving to Lichtenstein and the woman he consorts with after relocating to Bowling Green, Ky., succumb to frustration, hoping random moves will change their lot in life, only to discover otherwise.
“It’s a little bit of a shaggy dog story,” says Schlesinger. “But I like the idea of starting with one character’s story and having it trade off to another one, almost as if a camera was following one character and then another.”
The disc’s first single, “Someone to Love,” a Beatles/Cars-influenced mashup with a thumping dance beat, also has a sober side as it depicts two lonely people—a food industry lawyer and a woman who retouches photos for a teen magazine—who just miss connecting.
“I liked the idea of two characters and setting up the expectation that they’ll meet by the end of the song and then they don’t,” says Schlesinger. “I wrote that song backwards. Usually I start with the music, but this time I started with the lyrics.”
It shouldn’t come as news to longtime FoW fans that Traffic and Weather is packed with offbeat characters. One is “Yolanda Hayes,” a Department of Motor Vehicles employee who becomes a fantasy object worthy of the singer’s very best pickup line. (Schlesinger balks when asked for it: “I can’t give that away in print,” he protests.)
Then there are the two lusty Channel Six news anchors of Traffic and Weather‘s snappy/slinky title track, who after years of thinking about it, finally decide to act on their randy impulses. This time, Schlesinger even gives his fictional news readers real names: veteran WNBC-TV anchors Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons.
“I’ve been watching them for years and years,” says native New Yorker Schlesinger. “They’ve been on the air my entire life and they still look exactly the same.”
“I always had a big crush on Sue Simmons,” adds the musician, who crossed paths with the anchorwoman once when FoW went to NBC to tape Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Asked if either Scarborough or Simmons is aware of the song, Schlesinger answers, “I don’t know if they’ve heard it, but I hope they do.”
Schlesinger and Collingswood are old hands at incorporating humor into music—they first collaborated while studying at Massachusetts’ Williams College a decade before starting Fountains of Wayne (named after a New Jersey gift shop) in 1996.
But they know it remains tricky even for the wittiest wordsmiths. Every now and again, Schlesinger and Collingswood are accused of laughing at characters they create, and this time the charge is leveled at the Doobie Brothers-tinted track “‘92 Subaru.”
“I don’t understand what that means,” says Schlesinger. “It’s supposed to be a funny song about a guy who is singing about a lame car. It’s just some made-up crap, not a judgment on a type of person. I wanted to write a car song and had to think, `What’s a car nobody’s written about?’ Little Red Corvette and Pink Cadillac are already taken.”
FoW, always a cult fave, had its profile raised considerably when “Stacy’s Mom” hit four years ago. So why the long wait between records?
“Real life happened,” says Schlesinger. “We were touring a really long time, and I have two kids to raise” (4-year-old Sadie and 2-month-old Claire).
“We needed a break from it all. Some of us got busy doing other things”—Schlesinger wrote three songs for the recent Drew Barrymore-Hugh Grant movie, Music and Lyrics—“while some of us just kicked back and took it easy.”