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Wayne's World

 

Fountains of Wayne: Welcome Interstate Managers

S-Curve, 2003

Rating: 4.8

 

 

Posted: June 19, 2003

By Laurence Station

It would have been easy for the songwriting tandem of Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood to throw in the towel. The brain trust behind Fountains of Wayne had put out a ridiculously fun and highly replayable self-titled debut in 1996, to great acclaim but less than inspiring sales. 1999 witnessed the arrival of Utopia Parkway, which tightened the New York-based quartet's sound (the other two accomplished members being guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young). Alas, Utopia Parkway did little to convince the world that Fountains of Wayne were supreme purveyors of intelligent power pop -- while, inexplicably, the two guys in the Rembrandts made out like bandits for that Towering Edifice of Pop Perfection masquerading as the Friends theme. Had Justice packed up and left town, leaving no forwarding address? Had some nefarious agent of darkness drained all goodness from the world? How could such obvious talent be ignored?

Fortunately, the duo has soldiered on, and as proof of their continuing commitment to the art of clever, infectiously hummable, hook-laden popcraft, Schlesinger and Collingwood have returned with not only their crowning achievement to date but also one of the year's finest albums, period. Welcome Interstate Managers continues the exploration of Tri-State characters first explored on Utopia, but widens the geographic and psychic net considerably to include the entire New England region, imagining everything from a drunk salesman who just can't "get [his] shit together" ("Bright Future in Sales") to a young quarterback who has a profound moment of Zen in the middle of a play ("All Kinds of Time").

What sets Managers apart from, and ultimately elevates it far above, the rest of the band's catalogue (and the work of just about any other band, save for the Flaming Lips, currently working in pop), are the shades of depth and surprising moments of poignancy that seep through. The acoustic-based "Hackensack" sketches a portrait of a grown man reflecting on a boyhood crush who left the titular city for success in Hollywood. When the narrator mentions seeing her on his television, "talking to Christopher Walken," there's a real sense of despair, a cold realization that her success scales proportionate to his personal failures. The hard rocking "No Better Place" complements "Hackensack" nicely, following the bitterness felt by a man as his lover leaves New York for elsewhere, and how he attempts to present the city, rather than any redeeming qualities of his own, as a reason for her to stay.

The idea of restless travel, even if it's just down the street, permeates Managers, a sense of dissatisfied yearning for something better, be it a change of venue, lover or job. The cheeky "Halley's Waitress" plays on the famous comet, exploring a particular brand of sudden, creeping loneliness that sneaks up on a person -- even when he's just waiting for a fresh cup of coffee. The bittersweet "Fire Island" celebrates the sense of liberation felt by teenagers when their parents are away, but cleverly intimates how too much freedom can be just as constricting as having an authority figure hovering over your shoulder.

Musically, Welcome Interstate Managers is the band's most accomplished and stylistically varied album yet. "Hung Up on You" is a classic hangdog, hung over country ditty, aided in no small part by guest artist Robert Randolph's masterful pedal-steel. "Stacy's Mom" is vintage power pop, with an opening dirty guitar crunch that would make the Cars proud. "Supercollider" pays respect to swirling '60s psychedelia, and manages to sound fresh despite that genre's obvious age lines. Indeed, the group's real success stems from an uncanny knack for making obvious and familiar beats and chord progressions sound wholly new and engaging. Such unoriginal originality should, by all rights, hobble the album. Instead, it makes it.

Save, that is, for "Peace and Love," a grating, sing-song-y dud whose lyrics trot out hippie clichés about peace, love and retreating to the wilds of Vermont that neither debunk nor shed any kind of light on the "turn on, tune in, drop out" mindset. It's the one track standing in the album's path to the hallowed halls of ultimate pop-rock Nirvana. But one lone misstep does little to undermine an otherwise fantastic effort. The seeds Fountains of Wayne laid on Utopia Parkway bear generous returns here. Welcome Interstate Managers is a masterpiece of middle class despair, garbed in a tried-and-true blinding white pop-art gown.

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 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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