Sometimes the media's blessing can be a band's biggest curse. Following the release of their (admittedly brilliant) self-titled debut, Fountains of Wayne were tagged as "almost better than anything, ever" by overzealous members of the press. From that point onward, the NYC-based quartet struggled in the face of blinding limelight to craft an equally vivacious follow-up. And failed. Utopia Parkway
was a power-pop record par excellence, but many critics dismissed it as a poor second showing -- yet another case of sophomore slump. Now, four years down the road, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood are back, minus much of that traitorous limelight, toting their third LP.
A jittery ride through a procession of quaint personal narratives and convoluted stylistic conventions, Welcome Interstate Managers is a watershed accomplishment, surpassing the band's debut in terms of whimsical pop songcraft, lyrical astuteness and blind melodic ambition. While the first album was an impressive introduction, its static song arrangements radiated a crackling sameness that grew predictable by album's end. Welcome Interstate Managers dodges familiarity, running the gamut from plucky power-pop ("Mexican Wine", "Bright Future in Sales") to blurry synth odes ("Stacy's Mom"), and even digs its heels into rollicking C&W tumescence ("Hung Up On You").
As you listen to them hop-skip around the radio dial, the real genius of Schlesinger and Collingwood's songwriting finally comes into focus; they're not just any band, they're every band you've ever loved, candy-coated and rolled into irresistible three-minute chunks of chewy pop goodness. Sugary mid-tempo charmer "Halley's Waitress" is pure AM gold, "Supercollider" hinges on cinder-block drumming and bitchy guitars, and "Fire Island" is a fragile torch song that floats along on sullen vocals, gauzy brass and dollops of Cole Porter modishness. If the album's broad scope seems a bit daunting, don't worry -- the band have tempered their genre jumping with jarring hooks and buzzing new-wave accoutrements. The Fountains of Wayne you know and love are still very much there, albeit lurking behind the plucked banjos and mild-mannered piano-work.
Schlesinger and Collingwood's brand of intelligent power-pop might not be in vogue, but if history has shown us anything, it's that smartly-crafted pop music is as timeless an undertaking as a band can accept. Could Welcome Interstate Managers be an early contender for Comeback Album of the Year? Album of the Year itself seems far more appropriate.