No Better Place: An Appreciation of Fountains Of Wayne
“The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”
― Mark Twain
“I would never rule it out completely. But I don’t see it happening,” said longtime Fountains Of Wayne frontman Chris Collingwood in one of several recent interviews promoting the eponymous debut album from his new creative vehicle Look Park. The question: “Could you see Fountains Of Wayne reuniting someday?”
It’s not hard to detect the notes of annoyance in the interviews Collingwood has done to promote Look Park; one imagines the inevitability of questions about his old band does little to ease the sting of constantly being reminded of who you used to be, when the subject you’re eager to talk about is who you want to be. Please forgive us for that, Chris; we don’t mean to be rude or insensitive; it’s just that it’s impossible to separate you completely from people’s feelings about and memories of a band as important as Fountains Of Wayne.
Obligatory historical recap: Collingwood (lead vocals, guitar) and his principal Fountains partner-in-crime Adam Schlesinger (bass, keys, production) met in college and bounced separately through a number of other bands before putting FOW together, adding guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young. Together and, increasingly over time, apart, Schlesinger and Collingwood composed exceptionally well-crafted power-pop tunes rich with memorable characters, monster guitar hooks, singalong choruses, and wise, snappy punchlines.
For better or worse—and the jury’s looking doubtful on that question—halfway through their five-plus album run the New Jersey quartet produced a fluky Top 10 hit in “Stacy’s Mom,” a deliciously catchy Cars homage that’s actually only the fifth- or sixth-best song on 2003’s superb Welcome Interstate Managers (an album at least one reviewer described as “a bona fide rock and roll masterpiece”). That sudden success seemed to throw the band off-balance, though, as Collingwood hit a rough patch personally and developed writer’s block, contributing only a handful of tunes to 2007’s Traffic And Weather. The group returned seemingly strong as ever for 2011’s Sky Full Of Holes, but Collingwood describes the album as “a struggle.” The outcome was a band on indefinite hiatus, and Look Park.
Back in the present, we’re left to appreciate the body of work Fountains Of Wayne created over the course of 15 eventful years and five remarkable albums, starting with that inevitable hit “Stacy’s Mom.” The song might feel like a simple gag to the casual observer—the suburban kid crushing on the mother of the girl who’s crushing on him—but like all the best FOW tunes, the gold is in the little details and character bits. Yes, the narrator is a hormonal middle-schooler—but he’s also a hopeless romantic who appears to honestly believe that “[S]ince your dad walked out, your mom could use a guy like me.”
This Fountains specialty—the earnest dreamer bumping up against reality—appears again and again, populating songs from “Red Dragon Tattoo” (“Will you stop pretending, I've never been born / Now I look a little more like that guy from Korn”) to “Hackensack” and “92 Subaru” with wounded would-be Romeos desperate for any scrap of attention from the object of their desire. The group’s other forte—sharply-drawn sketches of young urban/suburban life—is explored with panache in instantly appealing tunes like “Utopia Parkway,” “Bright Future In Sales,” “Hey Julie” and “No Better Place.” Again and again, Schlesinger and Collingwood house keen insights about human nature (“Michael And Heather At The Baggage Claim”) and imaginative renderings of indelible moments (“All Kinds Of Time”) inside tight, vibrant arrangements. I could go on throwing out song titles that amount to a soundtrack of my favorite power-pop tunes of the past two decades, but let’s cut to the chase.
What seemed to happen on Sky Full Of Holes—and showed much promise, at that—was a deepening and widening of the focus of Collingwood and Schlesinger’s character-driven songs. In between its laugh/cringe punchlines, “The Summer Place” offers a moving, naturalistic portrayal of a fractured family in crisis. Characters like the narrator trying to help a self-destructive friend on “Hate To See You Like This,” the doing-the-best-I-can dad in “Action Hero” and the devastated “blue war widow” in “Cemetery Guns” feel like real, three-dimensional people acting out classic dramatic arcs, their lives rendered vividly in hook-filled four-minute rock songs. Even the least character-driven number on the album—the impressionistic “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart”—engages the imagination thoroughly with its flickering, movielike images and relentless melodic hooks.
What I’m getting at is, this is art—a unique and hard-to-categorize form of it, to be sure, but most assuredly art. Crafting memorable narratives about realistically flawed human beings is one of art’s highest callings, and laughter helps the audience let its guard down, allowing people to recognize both their own foibles and the underlying absurdities of even the toughest situations we encounter in life: loneliness, burnout, addiction, grief.
Collingwood says he and Schlesinger “drifted apart.” Fair enough. It’s hard to think of a great songwriting partnership (Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, Goffin-King, and the list goes on) that hasn’t gone through a divorce somewhere along the way; in their heart of hearts, most creators would rather drive the bus than share the wheel with someone else. But the very same body of evidence clearly demonstrates that most songwriters’ work is sharpened and enhanced by the creative tension between collaborators.
Whether or not Collingwood and Schlesinger fully appreciate it, Fountains Of Wayne was a band that mattered. It was a band that touched its fans with an inimitable combination of wit and pathos, terminally catchy hooks and brutally honest observations of the human condition. It was a band that was great, and still in the process of getting better. I’ll always wonder where the road they started down on Sky Full Of Holes might have taken them and, like a character in a Fountains Of Wayne song, I’ll keep on dreaming that they might find their way back.