Well, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences missed their last chance to give Joss Whedon an Emmy for his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer this week. One visual effects nomination, and that’s it. Never mind the fact that with “Selfless,” “Conversations With Dead People,” “Storyteller” and Whedon’s series finale “Chosen,” Buffy served up four of the best hours of television of this or just about any year. Screw it, let’s give the award to The Sopranos again.
Okay, end of rant. And, I’ve decided, end of dreary and depressing topics for this column, at least for this week. Yeah, the music industry is in a lousy place, and the world at large is in a lousier one, and at least one million injustices are committed each second, which means six million awful things have happened in the time it’s taken you to read this atrocious run-on sentence. One of music’s great attributes is its ability to make you think about the state of the world, or forget about it entirely. It’s all in how it’s used, and some of the best records ever made revel in their power to inflict temporary blissful amnesia for 50 minutes or so.
I had a conversation this week about the new Fountains of Wayne album, Welcome Interstate Managers, and I remembered that this nifty little gem was still languishing in my “to review” pile. FoW is basically a songwriting duo – Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood – that makes some of the most infectious, hilarious, touching pop music this side of Sloan. They’ve never written a song that can’t be described as a ditty – they’re all simple, perfectly constructed three-minute marvels. The magic of FoW is that while these ditties are playing, you’ll find it hard to imagine enjoying anything as much as you’re enjoying them.
In some ways, FoW are doing a delightfully deadpan mockery of pop music, using its framework to dissect and destroy its usual lyrical concerns. Welcome Interstate Managers is in places just a few vulgarities removed from Ween – “Hey Julie,” for example, is a song the Ween brothers could have penned, and “Hung Up on You” would fit nicely on their 12 Golden Country Greats album. Any album that begins with the line “He was killed by a cellular phone explosion” is going to be labeled quirky, an easy description that has relegated bands like They Might Be Giants to the novelty bin.
And like TMBG, dismissing FoW as merely a quirky pop outfit will likely lead one to miss the subtler, more beautiful moments they pull off with ease. Yes, there is a song here based on the line “Stacy’s mom has got it going on,” but there’s also “Hackensack,” a lovely lament for a lost, now-famous friend. And there’s “All Kinds of Time,” which takes three minutes to describe in loving detail the couple of seconds before a young quarterback throws a perfect pass. And there’s “Valley Winter Song,” which emulates musically the soft New England snowstorm it paints lyrically.
And there’s “Bright Future in Sales,” the most fun you’ll have listening to a single song this year, barring an excellent new album from the aforementioned Sloan. Musically it’s perfect pop, and lyrically it’s a Dilbert strip minus the cynicism – “I had a line on a brand new account, but now I can’t seem to find where I wrote that number down, I try to focus, I’m staring at the screen, pretending like I know what all these little flashing lights mean…” In an alternate universe, this is an anthem that’s blaring out of speakers in convertibles roaring down every street in America.
And there’s “Halley’s Waitress,” a pastiche of ’70s orchestral pop balladry that’s just as clever as you hope it is: “Halley’s waitress never comes around, she’s hiding in the kitchen, she’s nowhere to be found…and when she finally appears it’s like she’s been away for years…” They choose the popular mispronunciation of Halley – “HAY-lee” instead of “HAL-lee” – but one gets the sense that a band this smart wouldn’t make that mistake, and it’s all part of the joke.
Welcome Interstate Managers has a masterfully executed ebb and flow, as well. In fact, had the album ended, elegantly and beautifully, with “Fire Island,” it would have been a worthy successor to 1999’s Utopia Parkway. Unfortunately, Collingwood and Schlesinger have uncannily sequenced the only four inferior songs right at the end. Three of them meander with pleasant grooves and very little melody, kind of like second-rate Oasis, and closer “Yours and Mine” is so brief it feels like an afterthought. “Peace and Love” does a decent job of skewering the recent lazy-hippie acoustics-and-drum-machines bong music thing, but otherwise the final quartet plays like a set of hastily appended bonus tracks.
But hey, you have the power to press stop at track 12 if you want to, and if you choose to do so, you’ll have a nearly flawless pop gem on your hands. Welcome Interstate Managers is just light enough to be winsome and ingratiating, and yet just considered and artful enough to avoid easy dismissal. It’s a pop record for people who think they’re too cool for pop records, and an absolute charmer. Like all the best pop, there is loneliness and disconnection beneath its sunny surface, and the lyrics, read on their own, would seem to belong to a much sadder record. That it leaves you with a hazy sense of pleasant wonder is nothing short of magic.
What’s that? Another example? Well, okay, but just this once…
I’m eventually going to write a book about criminally underrated bands, and when I do, Enuff Znuff will easily rate their own chapter. Most folks, if they remember them at all, lump Enuff Znuff in with the late ’80s-early ’90s hair metal explosion, dismissing them as they would Trixter or Britny Fox. These people are insane. Remember this – there will be a quiz later.
EZN (their preferred abbreviation) have been making records for 15 years, and their latest, Welcome to Blue Island, is their 11th. They scored their only two hits in 1989 with “New Thing” and “Fly High Michelle” from their self-titled debut, and have been ignored ever since. But here’s the thing – since their second album, the wonderful Strength, EZN have been on a roll, penning one terrific pop song after another. It would be far easier for me to list the bad Enuff Znuff songs, there are so few of them. They are the most Beatles-influenced power pop band since Cheap Trick, and proof positive that simply making great records is not enough in today’s market.
Enuff Znuff are easily described thusly: imagine if John Lennon had left the Beatles and started the glam-rock revolution. They’ve always balanced equal parts British melodicism and good old American arena-rock, despite not being able to play arenas since 1991 or so. Sure, there are wailing guitar solos now and then, but they’re easily countered by the soaring, Lennon-esque voice of Donnie Vie. (Sorry, but there’s no other way to describe him – he sounds an awful lot like John Lennon at his best.) And of course, there are the songs, with as many interesting chord changes and inescapable melodies as the boys can cram in. The work speaks for itself – Donnie Vie and Chip Znuff have written more great songs together than a large percentage of the folks who routinely outsell them.
I know that bands are supposed to get better with age, but the last few EZN records have been pretty damn amazing. After a few efforts put together on a shoestring, the production finally caught up with the songcraft on 1999’s Paraphernalia, and only got better on 2000’s superb 10. Because this type of music is much more popular in Japan for some reason, they get EZN records before we do. Add in the search for a stateside record label (they finally landed one with Perris Records) and my aversion to import prices, and all told I’ve had to wait more than a year to hear 2002’s Blue Island, just out in the U.S. Not that I was worried, but I’m happy to report that the streak continues – it’s by and large an excellent pop album.
There is a touch more rock this time, and I always found it odd that a band that regularly throws back to the ’60s would want to evoke the ’80s as much as they do, but happily only one song – “Roller Bladin’ in the Shade” – really recalls the days of stonewashed jeans and teased hair. The rest of the album carries on the Beatles-but-louder tradition they’ve always upheld, and there are gems aplenty. “Saturday” and “Sanibel Island” could duke it out for Best Summer Anthem, “Man Without a Heart” levitates on gorgeous harmonies, and “Fallen in Love Again” is perfectly Lennon/McCartney.
Most impressive of all is the mostly instrumental concluding trilogy, quite unlike anything they’ve attempted thus far. The rocking “Z Overture” is the work of a tight, well-hewn unit, and it slams headlong into the multi-part jazzy epic “Zentimental Journey,” which, among other things, outs Vie as a halfway decent scat singer. That tune ends with a repeated Beatles quote – “Here comes the sun” – which, of course, leads into the wailing-guitar-and-huge-harmonies coda, called “The Sun.” It’s sort of their mini-Abbey Road suite, and it’s a fine capper to a short yet rewarding album.
The American bonus tracks are definitely tacked on – there’s a live reading of “Hide Your Love Away” on the Howard Stern Show, a new track performed with former BulletBoy Marq Torien (not even in the same league as Vie), and a note-for-note cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” the point of which eludes me. Like Welcome Interstate Managers, Blue Island is much improved by stopping at track 12.
There are rumors that Blue Island will be the last Enuff Znuff album, since Vie refused to tour with the band in order to promote his soon-to-be-released solo record Just Enough. Should this prove to be true, it will feel like reality finally intruding. Considering the tumultuous musical landscape into which they were born, it’s pretty remarkable that EZN managed 11 albums, as if the gods have been looking the other way each time. At the moment, they are alone in their field, the only band doing what they do, or at least as well as they do it. In the end, it’s all about the songs, and virtually every Enuff Znuff song can be lifted up as an example of pure pop joy.
I haven’t quite digested the new 6gig yet, but I hold out hope that I can get to it next time. Also on the way are Jane’s Addiction, Spock’s Beard, Queensryche, Mark Eitzel and Harry Connick, Jr. I just read that list again and I can’t help marveling at its incongruity. It’s neat to be me.
See you in line Tuesday morning.