Fountains of Wayne
Photo: Joseph Cultice / Courtesy of Atlantic Records / Press photo

Fountains of Wayne’s Power Poptastic Debut Turns 25

Fountains of Wayne’s debut LP reasserts how sturdy the formula of a catchy chorus and distorted guitars can be when a group has the songwriting to back it up.

Fountains of Wayne
Fountains of Wayne
Atlantic / TAG / Scratchie
1 October 1996

Fountains of Wayne‘s self-titled debut has its 25th anniversary this week, and it seems like a good time to revisit the record. Today, the band are best remembered for their biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom”, from 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers. Their first release, though, was an instant success with music critics, who lauded the band’s songwriting skill and 1960s and 1970s-inspired power-pop style.

In retrospect, it’s not a big surprise that Fountains of Wayne was so impactful with music critics of the mid-’90s. The duo of Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger had impeccable pop music chops and wrote songs that were catchy and fun without being outright wacky. Even better, they were a pair who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia (Collingwood) and New York City (Schlesinger) and often wrote lyrics about the lives of people in the suburbs and New York City. Pop music criticism at this time was dominated by New York-based print media and primarily populated by white men who had grown up in the suburbs. Fountains of Wayne were a band that could’ve been marketed directly to music critics.

As a white male college student who had also grown up in the suburbs and followed pop music criticism pretty closely, I heard the buzz about the band. When MTV started playing the first single, “Radiation Vibe”, with some regularity, it turned out to be a pretty great song. It was all the push I needed to pick up the record.

“Radiation Vibe” kicks off the album, a midtempo track with a hell of a chorus. A relaxed beat and catchy guitar riff start the song, and then Collingwood sings the attention-grabbing opening lines: “Are you alone now / Did you lose the monkey / He gave you backaches / And now you slouch.” The distorted guitars kick in when the track gets to the refrain, and Schlesinger joins in singing harmonies. “And now it’s time to say / What I forgot to say / Baby, baby baby / Come on, what’s wrong? / It’s a radiation vibe I’m grooving on” is a great big hook, even though it doesn’t seem to mean much. “Radiation Vibe” is essentially Fountains of Wayne fully formed on their very first track. Sometimes the lyrics are clever, and sometimes they’re nonsense. The song grooves along until it rocks. The whole thing is a big chunk of catchy pop-rock music that isn’t trying to be tough or cool or follow the alternative rock trends of 1996.

Ironically, one of the alternative rock trends of 1996 was throwing bands at the wall to see what stuck. This post-grunge one-hit-wonder environment launched Beck to superstardom and gave airtime to acts like Luscious Jackson, Soul Coughing, and Fun Lovin’ Criminals. It allowed “Radiation Vibe” to become a minor hit, reaching #14 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart in North America, squeezing onto the main Top 100 charts in both North America (#71) and Australia (#95), and getting to #32 on the UK singles chart.

The second track and second single, “Sink to the Bottom”, follows a similar musical pattern. It has a quiet beginning, dominated by a straightforward keyboard figure. This figure was immortalized in the music video, which shows a single finger repeatedly pressing a white key, switching to the black key next to it, and returning to the white key. The rest of the song is also very simple, opening with what’s essentially a chorus that repeats “I wanna sink to the bottom with you” with slight variations. Then the keyboard disappears, the guitars rock out, and there’s a second, different chorus. The rest of the song switches between these two refrains with a guitar solo thrown in here and there. Improbably, this completely works. Both refrains are catchy earworms, and Schlesinger and Collingwood resist the urge to overcomplicate, just letting the song be two big hooks.

“Sink to the Bottom” failed to make much impact in North America, although it reached #42 in the UK and #7 in Norway. That was it for Fountains of Wayne’s commercial success, but it was enough to make the duo find a permanent drummer (Brian Young) and guitarist (Jody Porter) and move forward as a full band. By this point, the duo’s friend and bassist for the album Danny Weinkauf had moved on to play with They Might Be Giants. Schlesinger, who played guitar and drums on the record, switched to bass guitar, where he remained for the rest of the band’s career.

Interestingly, these two relatively abstract love songs open the record because the rest of Fountains of Wayne is filled with much more specific character studies. The fun ones are what clicked with me in 1996. “Survival Car” is a fast-paced rocker about a reckless driver. The high harmonies and backing vocals, using lots of “ooh la la la”, add a layer of catchiness to a song that’s already big and bright. “Funny how the ground can find my wheels / I’m going where the road won’t dare” is a refrain that seems appropriate for off-roading, but the song is filled with references to New York City locations like Union Square and Central Park. That gives the lyrics an even greater sense of recklessness.

“Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight” is a mid-tempo song about a guy who is clearly depressed and knows he shouldn’t be out on the town. But he still came along and spends most of the song apologizing for bringing down the party. The song is anchored by a big, intentionally ironic rocking chorus where Collingwood sings, “Please don’t rock me tonight / I’m not in the mood.”

“Leave the Biker” is the other big, silly song here, and it’s one of the strongest earworms on an album that’s full of them. Fountains of Wayne spent much of their career showing empathy for their characters and their issues, no matter how inconsequential. That is not the case here. This song is pure nerd rage about an attractive woman spending time with a big, dumb biker. The lyrics were over the top in 1996 and seem more so today. “Now his friend leans over and says, ‘Looks like we got us a fag’ / I wonder if that guy’s read one word, that wasn’t in a porno mag?” hasn’t aged all that well. Musically, though, the song goes from very catchy verses to an incredibly catchy pre-chorus to a supremely catchy actual chorus. That plea, “Baby, please, leave the biker / Leave the biker / Break his heart”, is an instant sing-along.

Collingwood’s sweet singing voice has just a hint of rasp to it, which enhances the melancholy feel of their ballads. “She’s Got a Problem” shows concern for a mentally unstable acquaintance over a pleasantly loping beat and guitar riff. The refrain, “She’s got a problem / And she’s gonna do something dumb,” is sung in such a way that Collingwood sounds on the verge of tears. Closer “Everything’s Ruined” uses slow, watery guitars and tinkly piano to finish the album on its quietest note. Collingwood is low in the mix, sounding like he’s singing as softly as possible while still producing sound.

“Sick Day”, another ballad, is the song here that seems to have improved the most with age. It tells the story of a young woman who has a grinding commute into the city each day to work a mind-numbing office job and start back home. It’s a gentle track that drifts along lazily, effectively echoing the mood of the lyrics. Collingwood seems to have genuine sympathy for this average person stuck in an average job. “She’s on her way / She’s taking a sick day / Soon” goes the refrain, and the way “soon” is almost an afterthought indicates that this sick day fantasy is primarily just that. It’s the longest song on the album, mainly because it has a false ending and a minute-long coda where Schlesinger, Collingwood, and Weinkauf jam out on the central theme. It’s an effective way to extend the track, but thematically it just feels like the commute is taking longer than usual.

There are a couple of songs from the album that don’t seem as strong in 2021. “Joe Rey”, which Collingwood admitted was one of the first three songs he wrote for the band, doesn’t hold up as well as the other two (“Radiation Vibe”, “Leave the Biker”). Musically it’s a solid rocker with a nice acoustic bridge, but its lyrics about a Spaniard who’s a hit with everybody despite having a terrible personality aren’t that engaging. “You Curse at Girls” is an earnest ballad about a verbally abusive acquaintance. However, its primary concern is about the friend’s use of foul language around his girlfriend, and that seems like outdated hand-wringing today.

Fountains of Wayne was not a musically groundbreaking album, and it didn’t capture the zeitgeist of the popular music of the day. What it did was reassert how sturdy the formula of a catchy chorus and some distorted guitars can be when a group has the songwriting to back it up. The band’s sonic legacy can easily be traced from the mid-’60s through ’70s Cheap Trick and beyond into 2000s indie-pop. Their closest successful contemporary was probably Weezer, who put out Pinkerton to a much less friendly critical reception just a week before Fountains of Wayne was released. Schlesinger and Collingwood were masterful songwriters who, amazingly, wrote this entire first album in a single week. It’s a testament to their abilities that this record is essentially equal in quality to their later releases, where they presumably spent a lot longer writing songs.

Fountains of Wayne recorded four more albums, all highly acclaimed, and Welcome Interstate Managers, their third, was their commercial high point. That record earned them a pair of Grammy nominations, including one for Best New Artist, adding to the substantial Grammy legacy of ridiculous nominations in that category. By the time the band reached 2011’s Sky Full of Holes, the relationship between Schlesinger and Collingwood had become too strained for the group to continue. They quietly broke up after a tour in fall 2013, never making an official public announcement.

Afterward, Collingwood made a solo album as Look Park while Schlesinger continued his very successful work writing songs for film and television. Most notably, he was an executive producer and the music director for the musical TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for all four seasons. Schlesinger, tragically, passed away on 1 April 2020 from complications related to COVID-19.

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