Rock critics, those most pompous and slipshod scholars, have many bad habits, but few are so nefarious as their tendency to decide which is the truest and best representation of an artist and judge all their other output by this provincial standard. “Dylan sold out after Blonde on Blonde“, they might say to prove that they know more than all those poor suckers who actually enjoyed Blood on the Tracks. With power-pop powerhouse Fountains of Wayne, their current benchmark might well be their sophomore effort, 1999’s Utopia Parkway, and with good reason. After churning out a solid but derivative debut, leading lights Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood traded in their wall of distortion for some retro keyboards, giving their peerless melodies the space they needed to really shine. As far as the public was concerned, it hardly mattered. They paid about as little attention to Parkway as they did to its predecessor. But those that did hear it (i.e., hip critics like yours truly) treasured it and talked it up to anyone who would listen.
Now, at long last, these irony mongers have returned with Welcome Interstate Managers. They may not be following up a commercial smash, but with expectations running high in certain circles, Schlesinger and Collingwood must have felt at least a microscopic version of the pressure that higher-budget stars undergo when they follow up Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper. Luckily for all of us, Managers is no disastrous Smile or scattershot White Album. Instead, it’s more of what they’ve led their audience to expect, at least in one respect. It’s 16 pop nuggets with quality ranging from mild pleasures through would-be classics in about the same ratio as Parkway, and that’s no small feat. Anyone with basic demands for the band should be satisfied with what’s on display here, and that’s the last word they need.
For others, those who see genuine substance beneath the silly pleasures of Fountains of Wayne, they should be happy as well, though it might take some adjustments before they see the strengths of Welcome Interstate Managers. For starters, it’s the least ebullient record the group has made. A risky quality for power-pop, certainly, but if Big Star can do an album as harrowing as Third/Sister Lovers, then Fountains of Wayne can get away with taking a couple of baby steps in that direction. Tracks laden with ironic smirks are still onboard to help stave off the darkness. They even tip their caps to the Cars with “Stacy’s Mom”, although the chorus of “Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on” ensures that even those in the cheap seats won’t think it’s anything resembling a straight tribute. Lines like that pop up here and there elsewhere, but nothing resembling “Now I look a little more like that guy from Korn” rears its head at any point. Their humor is a little more subdued, and some frank unhappiness has taken its place.
Such a dour turn has been the downfall of many a formerly enjoyable artist (the Cranberries come to mind, except when where they ever good?), but like their increasingly prominent role model of Ray Davies, they know better than to overlook fundamental song craft. Davies’ bete noir was encroaching modernity, and tangentially, Fountains of Wayne’s is the onset of adulthood. Alcohol plays a huge role in Managers, but instead of the adolescent diversion it was only yesteryear, it now appears as a pathetic crutch. As Schlesinger and Collingwood’s characters go to jobs they hate to pay for things they’d rather not own while fantasizing about the fewer responsibilities they just had, they drink themselves stupid, half to maintain their youthful hedonism and half to simply scrape through adulthood.
What is the connection between these working stiffs and a couple of guys in a rock band? Nothing direct, maybe, other than the sorry exploits of the sort of friends they probably have. On some level, though, it makes sense. Fountains of Wayne seem to be expressing a dissatisfaction with the kind of screwing around for which they’ve become quasi-famous. The kind of irony evinced on Utopia Parkway periodically went past Randy Newmanesque artistry to juvenile sarcasm, and the absence of tracks like “Go, Hippie” and “Laser Show” hardly hurts. Songs like “Hackensack” not only make them look irrelevant, they make the more serious moments of Parkway look mawkish and contrived by comparison. The image of the kid outliving his glory years in his shrinking hometown is quite fine, but when he passively tells the girl who left for better things that he’ll be waiting for her as long as he needs to until she comes back, it’s positively touching. You can’t say that for much else that Fountains of Wayne has ever done. Since it sits on the album right next to “Stacy’s Mom”, it might be too soon to call it a radical break with their past, but its presence, along with similar sentiments scattered other places, might mark Welcome Interstate Managers as a transitional effort. Where they’re going is anyone’s guess, but I, for one, can’t wait to find out.