Fountains of Wayne: Welcome Interstate Managers

Gary Glauber

Welcome Interstate Managers is the welcome aural equivalent of a great collection of short stories, each song offering a little snippet from a life, and presenting a range of characters to fill this musical spectrum.

Fountains of Wayne

Welcome Interstate Managers

Label: Virgin
US Release Date: 2003-06-10
UK Release Date: 2003-06-16

If you love great pop and enjoy a good story in the process, run right out and purchase a copy of Fountain of Wayne's long-awaited third album. Welcome Interstate Managers is the welcome aural equivalent of a great collection of short stories, each song offering a little snippet from a life, and presenting a range of characters to fill this musical spectrum.

Perhaps this collection is a little more weighted toward the ballad end of things, but there is no drop in quality. If anything, FOW has managed to overcome the sort of emotional distance that critics cited in past works. Sure, there's still the occasional wisecrack, but there's also a newfound tenderness as well. Chris Collingwood and fellow FOWer Adam Schlessinger still have an uncanny ear for finding the subtle hooks that wend their ways into your subconscious, writing songs you'll find yourself humming in the shower, or hearing upon awakening.

This time around the band numbers four, as Jody Porter (guitar, vocals) and Brian Young (drums, percussion) have become officially listed members. There are a variety of musical styles among these 16 tracks, and a good 55-minutes of fun listening.

The CD opens with "Mexican Wine", a catchy song about drinking South-of-the-border wine and living with whatever comes your way. It makes a point of stressing horrible rhymes in its verses: "She lived alone in a small apartment / Across the street from the health department / She left her pills in the glove compartment / That was the afternoon her heart went". Other verses involve a guy killed by a cellular phone explosion and a pilot forced to retire for reading High Times.

"Bright Future in Sales" would make a great upbeat single, were it not for the inclusion of a certain non-radio word in its chorus. Here is a guy who drinks too much and yet chides himself with concern for his corporate future: "I'm gonna get my shit together / 'Cause I can't live like this forever / You know I've come too far and I don't want to fail / I got a new computer and a bright future in sales". The honor of the first single instead goes to "Stacy's Mom", the new summer anthem of MILF-dom. Arranged in the Cars' fashion, it's the story of a young man obsessed with the mother of a friend, who's "got it going on".

The beautiful "Hackensack" tells the story of a working class Joe longing unrealistically after a local who has gone on to fame and fortune, and who's willing to wait for her return: "I used to know you when we were young, you were in all my dreams / We sat together in period one Fridays at 8:15 / Now I see your face in the strangest places, movies and magazines / I saw you talkin' to Christopher Walken on my TV screen / But I will wait for you as long as I need to /And if you ever get back to Hackensack, I'll be here for you".

Jen Trynin adds her vocals to the game on "No Better Place", a guitar-laden tune of true regret about a friend leaving New York. Again alcohol is part of the proceedings, but the emotions are caught in the words so well: "The bourbon sits inside me and right now I'm a puppet in its sway / And it may be the whiskey talking, but the whiskey says I miss you everyday / So I taxi to an all-night party, park me in a corner in your old chair, sip my drink and stare out into space / Now you're leaving New York, for no better place".

"Valley Winter Song" is a tune about writing a song of solace for a friend who has just had too much New England Winter: "In late December, can drag a man down, you feel it deep in your gut / Short days and afternoons spent pottering around in a dark house with the windows painted shut / Remember New York and staring outside / As reckless winter made its way / From Staten Island to the upper West Side / Whiting out our streets along the way".

What makes Collingwood & Schlessinger so special is the way they can find new topics for songs (like getting a tattoo, attending a planetarium's laser show, etc). In "All Kinds of Time" we are shown the point-of-view of a quarterback and the thoughts going through his head before finding the open man and completing a pass. Former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha adds his guest guitar to this track.

The next two songs are variations on a theme, guys stuck in horrible dead-end jobs. In "Little Red Light" that guy also has the added misfortune of having been abandoned by his woman, and what's more, his electronic equipment (sans red lights) seems to constantly remind him of this abandonment. So whether he's stuck in traffic on the Tappan Zee bridge or just pondering simpler times (or drinking), he's not a very happy camper.

The guy in "Hey Julie" also has a terrible job, but his woman is his salvation, his key to surviving it: "Working all day for a mean little guy / With a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie / He's got me running around the office like a gerbil on a wheel / He can tell me what to do, but he can't tell me what to feel / Hey Julie look what they're doing to me / Trying to trip me up, trying to wear me down / Julie I swear it's so hard to bear it / and I'd never make it through without you around".

Halley's comet comes every 76 years or so, comparable to the appearance of "Halley's Waitress". This slow ballad dramatizes the tragicomic agonies of waiting for that epitome of sluggish inattentive service, complete with horns, harmonies and wah-wah pedal.

Collingwood and Schlessinger are musical chameleons, able to change colors and fit in well in a number of styles. Witness the fine job they do with the legit country song "Hung up on You", featuring the expert pedal steel guitar strains of Robert Randolph. There's no tongue in cheek here, the lyrics fit the genre expertly: "And I can't dial the phone just now, even though I know your number / I can't bring my broken heart to be untrue / Like you did today you'll say goodbye the same old way / Ever since you hung up on me, I'm hung up on you".

"Fire Island" is an argument for greater responsibility from undeserving youth, chronicling poor behaviors while claiming they're old enough to take care of each other without parental supervision. It's a distant musical cousin to some Elton John songs (I hear bits of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Harmony"), and features a nice flugelhorn solo from Ronnie Buttacavoli.

With "Peace and Love", Collingwood and Schlessinger revert to their old form of tongue-in-cheek attack. The subject here is the not-so-smart hippie who espouses peace and love, and you get all the stereotypical aspects -- the VW van, the vegan restaurant, Vermont, etc. Sure he's harmless and well intentioned, but you get the sense that FOW aren't very enamored of this kind of overly simplistic jingoism.

Another critical stab is taken with the harder edged rocker "Bought for a Song". This time it's all about endless touring in a band "when you stump for the man". It's all another big drunken mess ("Excuse me, I'm weaving as fast as I can") trying to get from city to city, and the message: "Before you get sold, you get bought for a song". "Supercollider" is FOW's semi-psychedelic track while "Yours and Mine" is a one-minute story of a lovely shared Sunday morning.

Fountains Of Wayne have grown in the years since we last heard them on Utopia Parkway, and while there still remains a lot of NY/NJ Metro area references on Welcome Interstate Managers, this is a wider, more diverse offering from them. They show us that New Jersey is more than a state; it's a state of mind. Here are the tales of winners and losers in love, dreamers, quarterbacks, waitresses, and a bunch of people who tend to drink excessively.

As always, the team of Collingwood and Schlessinger can craft perfect pop gems that crawl into your mind almost instantly. This CD has fast become a favorite around here, and is certainly one of the strongest releases of the year-to-date. Treat yourself to some interesting stories this summer -- get a copy of Welcome Interstate Managers, kick back and soak up the infectious pop music amusements.

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Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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