Fountains of Wayne

Traffic and Weather

(Virgin; 2007)

By David M. Goldstein | 30 December 2007

The manner in which jealous haters rag on Fountains of Wayne is generally twofold. First is the questionable lyrical content of their songs, which consist almost exclusively of tales of middle-class schlemiels, both snarky and sympathetic, dotted with of-the-moment pop culture references and rhyme patterns that even Anthony Kiedis won't touch. The second is that they stubbornly refuse to "challenge their fanbase" by failing to evolve. Four albums into their career, there's scant evidence of a desire to expand their oeuvre beyond three-minute pop-rock songs about, well, middle-class schlemiels; all heavily indebted to the 1970s radio rock bands currently milking the oldies circuit like the Cars, (gasp) Steve Miller Band, and especially Cheap Trick, whose "Surrender" Fountains of Wayne have re-written at least six times.

It's difficult to argue too much with the first point above because head songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood are unabashed cornball lyricists. They're perfectly willing to name drop both Coldplay and The King of Queens in lead single "Someone to Love" without thinking twice about dropping a Billy 'freakin Joel joke in "Strapped for Cash" that's only funny because it's so completely obvious in context that you can picture Schlesinger and Collingwood pissing themselves with laugher in the studio before unanimously electing to leave it in. The title track even references "Chuck Scarborough" coming on to "Sue Simmons," which is actually hysterical so long as you happen to live in the Tri-State area and know that the pair co-anchor NBC News at 6 and 11. Leave it to the Fountains to drop pop-culture references that only 3/50ths of the United States (don't attempt the world) would be expected to get, but Wikipedia does go a long way towards bailing them out. These lyrics don't particularly bother me, if only because I've come to anticipate them, and the band clearly wears their cheese like a badge of honor, even if it's understandable that a lot of folks will completely hate this shit.

Complaining about Fountains of Wayne's lack of evolution is more problematic, and at least to this critic, completely misses the point. Like the silversmith, tailor, or master cobbler, the Fountains view power-pop like an artistic vocation. They've never had a desire to, nor need to, alter their script because they provide a unique service at a high level of quality. If the blacksmith can give your horse a perfectly fine set of shoes, does it matter that he's less than adept at sewing the buttons onto your suit?

And no band makes '70s indebted power-pop that sounds like Fountains of Wayne because, simply put, no one's caught up with their production values. It's unusual to give a band kudos on account of simply being pleasing to the ear, but for all the vitriol wasted on their lyrics and/or steadfastness, it's seldom that anyone acknowledges how much these guys are in love with the sheer clarity of sound. The myriad aural touches sprinkled throughout Traffic and Weather -- the swingin' Chicago-style trumpets at the bridge of "Yolanda Hayes," a subtle cascading piano riff at the end of "Revolving Dora" -- are never in vain. The Fountains resolutely stare down every purposely lo-fi band of young punks and shamelessly tells them to fuck off.

For those already on the bandwagon, about the biggest complaints one can lodge against Traffic and Weather is that relative to prior releases, it relies a little too heavily on mid-tempos, and more surprisingly, fails to contain an instantly gratifying summer-smashes along the lines of "Stacey's Mom" or "Denise," although "'92 Subaru" comes damn close. And even for a band this proudly uncool, the self-explanatory "Planet of Weed" is unforgivable, especially considering the exact same send-up was already utilized on Welcome Interstate Managers's (2003) "Peace and Love," and wasn't funny the first time.

AC/DC based their career off releasing the same record every two years, so can Fountains of Wayne really be penalized for doing the same? They're still far and away the best bet for impeccably produced, beach-ready power-pop, and way better than your shitty sounding power-pop band, so excuse them if they seem to harbor no interest in doing anything else.