A messy, dark, and defiantly askew center exists at the core of the candy-coated pop-sweetness of Fountains of Wayne's songs -- which is what makes them such a recognizable take on American culture at its twisted best.
Fountains of Wayne's last record, the 2003 starlight mint Welcome Interstate Managers, notched its first casualty before the music even really kicked in: about three seconds into “Mexican Wine”, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood's protagonist is ungraciously “killed by a cellular phone explosion”, an event that, come to think of it, doesn't seem to trouble either of them very much.
So it makes sense that on Traffic and Weather, the band's first disc since and fourth overall, they immediately conjure up two woeful lovebirds, bestow upon them a contrived backstory worthy of a Drew Barrymore flick, have them circle each other in delicious anticipation, give them a soaring chorus about persisting in the quest to find someone to love, and then, in the end, reveal that they end up having absolutely nothing to do with each other -- while once again inviting the spectre of death into the tale. There is something seriously sticky and dark sloshing around amongst the taffy-apple melodies in these guys' brains.
Fountains of Wayne have always been tricky like that, though; like the timeless pop songsmiths they stand closer to with nearly every song, they use their impossibly catchy choruses, smirk-worthy wordplay, and a quiver full of fa-la-las and tra-la-las to mask a thorny truth lurking beneath: there are some morbid horrors happening on planet Earth, a lot of people waiting around in rooms lit only by TVs and eating food out of tubs, and even if cotton-candy hooks can dampen loneliness for a few minutes, they will never, ever, ever kill it entirely.
As such, Traffic and Weather ups the ante by adding in heavy measure a pile of sheer American boredom -- the title track refers to two hack TV newscasters in love, who are reported to belong together “like traffic and weather”, a typically Schlesingerian metaphor that mines magic out of two things that are otherwise really, really boring to talk about.
And Traffic and Weather carries throughout a preternatural gift for digging holy truths out of piles of throwaways -- this album is full of people watching TV at really weird times, full of junky in-flight catalogs and torn GNR posters, full of scattered hopes and slapdash dreams, full of images that seamlessly marry the kitschy and the beautiful. “Yolanda Hayes” is the name of a simmering angel Schlesinger finds within the beige-painted concrete confines of the DMV (“She's looking alright / Despite the bright flourescent lights / And I wonder what she's like when she gets home at night”). “I-95” takes place in what I imagine to be a Stuckey's, where Schlesinger documents the sacks of soul-sucking crap jammed within it, until he reveals himself to be in the midst of a nine-hour drive to see his squeeze -- “And I'll do it till the day that I die, if I need to / Just to see you”. He lets himself get cinematic and idealistic just long enough to make it more awesome when “a van driven by an older gentleman” cuts in front of him, and squats there for the rest of the trip. Figures.
Matters of love and life dominate the album, as they do all great pop, although there's a sense that the band is more in on the joke this time out. Witness “Planet of Weed”, a rock free of hatred, greed, and anything much really going on. Or “This Better Be Good”, a story about a runaround Sue that takes time to point out that her new paramour wears light-blue Dockers pants. Or the '70s-jacking “Strapped for Cash”, a synthy lark (with at least one Billy Joel joke) about a hard-luck chump and his run-ins with unspecified shady characters. Schlesinger's characters, one gets the sense, are all variations on the same high-school-newspaper dork whose sad, undercooked lot in life is due in equal parts to insecurity and a percolating impulse for subtle self-destruction: forever the underdog, terminally left at the prom, always missing the football, probably a Cubs fan, but the nicest bastard you'll ever meet.
Not that Traffic and Weather is an album only interested in the dark nights of the soul. Schlesinger draws up a sketch near the end called “New Routine”, starring more American shiftlessness, invents a waitress, gives her a suffocating lifestyle, and, in the end, sends her off to Lichtenstein with a kiss. Sure, two verses later, he's got two old men drawing up a similar scheme and then scuttling it completely, but hey, not everyone can pull off impulsive, half-panicked dreams of escape. Love, passion, and danger live in the same houses with routine and safety, and there aren't many bands that convey it better.