By Mark Guarino
Robbie Fulks had it right when he quietly released an underhanded song tribute to Fountains of Wayne via iTunes. “Fountains of Wayne Hotline” is pure Fulks — a satire that is also legitimately a good song, plus funny. It also dissects what makes Fountains of Wayne such a singularly ace pop band: They are airtight craftsmen. By re-imagining the band as 24-7 phone operators out to help floundering songwriters who can’t get from the chorus to the bridge, Fulks suggests the New Yorkers indeed work by formula, but one that sits miles above the heads and out of reach of their closest peers.
“Traffic and Weather” (Virgin/Capitol Records Group) is the band’s fourth album in 11 years, although that’s news to fans of veteran model Rachel Hunter. The breakthrough single “Stacy’s Mom” (and its video starring Hunter) not just gave credence that songs about delectable housewives are the ticket out of career doldrums, it also introduced song collaborators Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood to Justin Timberlake fans for the first time.
Let’s be thankful for that. In another age — say, the same age of Cheap Trick, Billy Joel and The Cars — Fountains of Wayne would be major hit-makers with little need for the soft porn approach. Despite the lag time between new releases, the band makes consistently first-rate albums that perfectly balance wry cultural commentary with unexpected but usually likable pop hooks. The songs are accessible and funny and sad and poignant in one flash, which is the ultimate goal of pop music. In taking aim, most songwriters are lucky to hit one or two.
The Fountains of Wayne familiarity Fulks gently mocked runs through “Traffic and Weather.” In stores this week, the album is once more peppered with the drab routines of office workers, the grandeur of self-deluded schemers, the tenderness of inconsequential happenstance and the comic complaints of morose losers. The nasal pleas of Collingwood reveal both tenderness and a comic slaying of his narrators — it’s up for you to decide. In describing the deadly mundane life of a Brooklyn lawyer (“he calls his mom, says he’s doing fine/she’s got somebody on the other line/puts Coldplay on, pours a glass of wine/and curls up with a book about organized crime”), he injects compassion through deadpan solemnity. You feel his middle class ennui, but you can’t laugh: This sad sack could very well be you.
These are scenarios that are dubious source material for pop songs, yet out of them Collingwood and Schlesinger wring emotional truths. The level of detail is something fans of Tom Waits will recognize. Collingwood starts “I-95” with this litany: “they sell posters of girls washing cars/and unicorns and stars/and Guns N’ Roses album covers/they’ve got most of the Barney DVDs/coffee mugs and tees/that say ‘Virginia is For Lovers’” before adding, “but it’s not.” “Round here it’s just for truckers who forgot to fill up on gasoline/back up near Aberdeen,” he sings.
Musically, “Traffic and Weather” sprays in every direction. “Revolving Dora” benefits from a tightly twisted guitar solo referencing the late psychedelic period of The Beatles, while “Fire in the Canyon” is a rootsy country shuffle. The band is best when they toughen songs up with layers of guitars, sweetly programmed effects and interspersed harmonies. This concoction gives the title song its strut as well as the album’s healthy serving of synth pop (“New Routine”) and guitar rockers (“’92 Subaru”). This time out, there is no breakthrough single of a “Stacy’s Mom.” Which may be part of the band’s ongoing formula. First you grab them for appetizers, then you serve the meal.