Fountains of Wayne, Nas, and the Lilys
6 April 1999
Fountains of Wayne
Fountains of Wayne’s self-titled debut album was critically adored and managed to create a small radio hit in “Radiation Vibe”. It was also a near-perfect collection of cheeky, slightly sarcastic power-pop. Their second album, Utopia Parkway, was just as critically acclaimed at the time, but a decade later, it doesn’t hold up quite as well.
Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood’s knack for writing a perfect pop song is on display here, to be sure, but Utopia Parkway also tends to get bogged down in ‘70s nostalgia and jokey lyrics that aren’t actually funny. “Valley of Malls” and “Go Hippie” are examples of the latter. They’re both mildly catchy songs that sound smug and a little mean today, attacking suburban shoppers and hippies for no apparent reason. The former includes “Laser Show”, a fun song that nevertheless feels more dated than nostalgic. Meanwhile, “Prom Theme” and “Senator’s Daughter” are thin, wispy ballads that come off as boring instead of sentimental.
But Utopia Parkway is by no means a total miss. It contains a lot of strong material, too. The title track is ‘70s nostalgia that actually works. “Red Dragon Tattoo” is catchy and a great singalong, and the line about the titular tattoo making the narrator “look a little more like that guy from KoRn” still makes me laugh today. “Hat and Feet” is silly, but it’s a really good song, and the chorus of “Amity Gardens”—“If you knew now / What you knew then / You wouldn’t wanna go to Amity Gardens again”—resonates because of its reversed timeframe.
The thing that really saves Utopia Parkway, though, is that it happens to contain the two best songs that Fountains of Wayne have ever written, “Denise” and “Troubled Times”. “Denise” is the band’s hardest-rocking song, with a crunchy guitar tone they’ve never tried again, and impeccable “Sha la la la la la la”‘s backing the chorus. “Troubled Times”, in contrast, is maybe the perfect ballad. Acoustic guitars back beautiful harmonies as Collingwood plaintively sings about a couple that persevered through a really rough patch in their relationship. It also highlights how good Fountains of Wayne can be lyrically when they’re on point: “Pining away every hour in your room / Rolling with emotion / Waiting ‘til it’s opportune / Sitting there watching time fly past you / Why do tomorrow, what you can never do?” So even though it’s uneven, Utopia Parkway remains a solid effort 10 years down the road. Chris Conaton
6 April 1999
Nas has been one of hip-hop’s most interesting characters. Bursting onto the scene with such gusto, straight into the heart of the genre, he has been able to practically float by ever since. Never has another rapper been constantly rooted for, album after album, without following through on the promise of that first collection of verses.
I Am…The Autobiography came directly after It Was Written, a popular affair that was still criticized for not being on the same level of what came before. Here, as is common throughout the genre, there was talk of a return to the real, leaving behind the popularity he had achieved, a notion he directly confronts in “Hate Me Now”, a song that was unfortunately overshadowed by its controversial video and violent aftermath. The DJ Premier head-nodder “Nas Is Like” is an attempt to ape the formula of yesterday, but never reaches the heights of those earlier tracks, despite first class production.
The rest of the album dribbles off from here, particularly the embarrassing sexual bravado of “Dr. Knockboot” and the unintentionally hilarious “Money Is My Bitch”, which rank among the lowest points of his career. It would be a couple of years before he would achieve some of the former glory with Stillmatic, returning to a deep focus on the lyrics instead of the macho posing he felt he needed to succeed in the industry. Nas is at a better place now than he was in 1999, finally striking a balance between the street and commercial sides of his persona that he can’t seem to shake, his fan-base still behind him eagerly awaiting his next move. Craig Hubert
20 April 1999
The knock on Lilys main man Kurt Heasley has always been that he’s a chameleon at best, a dilettante at worst, aping styles without, ya know, feeling them. Let the Trilateral Commission on Indie Rock Reputations stroke their (ironic) beards over that one, because all you need to know is this: 1999’s The 3-Way remains one of the smartest, shiniest, most exuberant slices of studio pop put to tape in the past 10 years, an unacknowledged template that peers in the Elephant 6 collective and Kevin Barnes’ Of Montreal got all the glory for exploring.
The Cliffs Notes version of The 3-Way might read, “Beach Boys contribute tracks to Nuggets,” shining a light on a world where multi-part string sections collide with Farfisas and fuzzed-out three-chord guitar stomps. But that description barely addresses the two dizzying, seven-plus minute psych-pop masterpieces “Socs Hip” and “Leo Ryan (Our Pharoah’s Slave)” that gleefully, slyly zig every 30 seconds or so, impossible to pin down and impossible not to be mesmerized by. Simpler pleasures, like the Kinks-y, Blur-y “The Spirits Merchant” and the faux-rumba “The Generator”, posit a universe where intelligent pop songs are the rule, not the exception.
Heasley’s sonic shapeshifting/wanderlust has gotten the better of him in recent years (see 2003’s sparer and darker Precollection), and he never returned to the ebullience and “gee whiz!” vibe of The 3-Way. Still, it’s there for the eager listener to discover and enjoy—who says you can’t show up to a party ten years late? Stephen Haag