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Fountains of Wayne

No Better Place: Live in Chicago

(Shout! Factory; US DVD: 3 Mar 2009)

No one will ever, ever doubt the pop mastery of Fountains of Wayne.

With one near-masterpiece (1999’s Utopia Parkway) and a brilliant monster-hit under their belts (“Stacy’s Mom”, from 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers), Fountains of Wayne have always walked that fine line between being indie cult-heroes and commercial hitmakers, never fully giving in to either side despite having such nice things like bassist Adam Schlesinger’s Oscar nomination in their arsenal (“That Thing You Do!” was true guilty-pleasure pop perfection, after all).

Yet cranking out classic studio gems is not the same as giving a thrilling live show, and as No Better Place painfully proves, Fountains of Wayne were never meant to be a proper touring concern.

Let’s start with the staging. Though the house is packed and the stage is large, the band—consisting of Schlesinger, vocalist Chris Collingwood, guitarist Jody Porter, and drummer Brian Young—rarely make use of the giant stage they are afforded. Mostly, the band is standing on their marks and performing their songs ... and that’s it. Though Porter does get his hippie-guitar groove on at times, the rest of the band is surprisingly lifeless and dull. Though the swooping crane shots try to convey some sense of excitement to the proceedings, the only thing they wind up panning across is a band that appears to be doing nothing more than going through the motions.

Worst of all, as a performer, Collingwood looks positively bored with his surroundings. Though his disaffected croon remains unaffected in a live context, the man just looks like he has somewhere better to be (which, given the group’s quick exit from the stage after the show, wouldn’t seem too far off the mark). The group doesn’t really talk to the audience much, the notable exceptions being when they mention how they’re about to play a rare B-side (“Janice’s Party”) and when they introduce their roadies-turned-percussionists for the peppy “Hey Julie”. The only thing that’s more disappointing than the lack of onstage chemistry is how the band doesn’t offer any new arrangements, covers, or other surprises during their concert: if you’ve heard the song on record, then that’s how it’s going to sound when played live.

Given this laundry list of disappointments [which also includes the DVD’s lone extra: a ho-hum mini-acoustic set of songs from the band’s Traffic & Weather album (which was released after they taped this concert)], the band has one saving grace on which to fall back on: they are still incredible songwriters. The set-list for this show covers their first three albums quite thoroughly, ranging from well-known classics (“Radiation Vibe”, “Stacy’s Mom”, “Mexican Wine”) to fan favorites (“Maureen”, “Bright Future in Sales”, “Sink to the Bottom”) to neglected-yet-stellar album tracks (show opener “I’ve Got a Flair”, “Red Dragon Tattoo”, “Survival Car”). Though fans may express slight grievances over other classics left off the set list (no “Troubled Times” or “I Want an Alien for Christmas”? C’mon!), the truth is that the No Better Place gives equal emphasis to all eras of the Wayne’s career, making for a truly even-handed concert.

It’s just a shame then that you walk away from your No Better Place viewing experience having learned nothing new about the band, the songs, or anything else for that matter. The group’s sense of humor and gift for melody have made them endure for well over a decade at this point, and it would be great to see them crank out even more sunny power-pop as the years wear on. Let’s just hope that all of their creative endeavors are studio-based from this point on, ‘cos this whole “live performance” thing just isn’t working out.


Extras rating:

Evan Sawdey started contributing to PopMatters in late 2005, and has also had his work featured in publications such as SLUG Magazine, The Metro (U.K.), Soundvenue Magazine (Denmark), the Daily Dot, and many more. Evan has been a guest on HuffPost Live, RevotTV's "Revolt Live!", and WNYC's Soundcheck (an NPR affiliate), was the Executive Producer for the Good With Words: A Tribute to Benjamin Durdle album, and wrote the liner notes for the 2011 re-release of Andre Cymone's hit 1985 album A.C. (Big Break Records), the 2012 re-release of 'Til Tuesday's 1985 debut Voices Carry (Hot Shot Records), and many others. He currently resides in Chicago, Illinois. You can follow him @SawdEye should you be so inclined.

No Better Place - Trailer
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