By the time you read this, I will be settled into my new home.
I am writing this on Sunday, three days before you get to read it. Two Men and a Truck (that’s the company’s real name) will be dropping by tomorrow (meaning Monday) to move all of my furniture from one western suburb of Chicago to another. I have spent the last week and a half carting over everything else I own, and if you know me at all, you know that’s a lot. More than 6,000 CDs, thousands of books, DVDs by the truckload. I have a lot of stuff, and most of it lives in my new place now.
But not all of it, and I only have a few hours to get everything else in line. So if it’s all right with you, I’m going to keep this one short. It’s OK, though. I have a pretty great record to talk about, and at the end, I have a free song to give you. So it’s not all bad, and I’ll be back to my usual way-too-long ramblings next week.
For now, though, here’s an album I’ve really been enjoying lately.
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Fountains of Wayne gets a bad rap. And sometimes, they deserve it.
I’m not sure I know of any other band that is a) great and b) universally dismissed as a frothy novelty. Only They Might Be Giants comes to mind, but they’re afforded a much greater measure of respect. Fountains of Wayne are the Rodney Dangerfield of the pop-rock world. Their biggest hit is “Stacy’s Mom,” a winking celebration of ‘80s cheeseball anthems and teenage hormones, and while it’s fun, it in no way encapsulates the diversity and heart of the album it’s taken from, 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers.
They didn’t exactly put their best foot forward last time out, either. 2007’s Traffic and Weather played up the novelty aspect of the band’s sound, piling on synthesizers and settling for half-assed ideas like “Strapped for Cash” and “Planet of Weed.” Like their big hit, the album was fun, but empty, words that can also be used to describe co-founder Adam Schlesinger’s extracurricular activities – the sorta supergroup Tinted Windows and his soundtrack work for films like Music and Lyrics.
But here’s the thing. When they’re on, when they’re trying for it, Fountains of Wayne is a terrific pop band. Seriously, just pull out Welcome Interstate Managers again. I know you bought it for “Stacy’s Mom” and didn’t give the rest of it more than a cursory listen eight years ago, but try it again. It’s an album that captures the sadness and joy of everyday life like few others I know. “Hackensack,” “No Better Place,” “Hey Julie,” and the heartbreaking “Valley Winter Song” are all the work of seriously talented, observant pop songsmiths.
And I’m happy to report that it’s that side of the band that comes to the fore over and over again on their new record, Sky Full of Holes. It’s a stunning return to form for Schlesinger and his co-writer, Chris Collingwood, who turn in some of their finest songs ever here. It’s a more sedate and serious work, compact at 13 songs and 45 minutes, but it’s full of warmth and wonder, and the band’s gift for pinpointing those small moments of magic and despair in all our lives is in full effect.
And man, am I glad to hear it. I missed songs like “Acela,” a tribute to Amtrak’s East Coast high-speed rail line. It’s the story of a man who boards a train, thinking his love will be there with him, but she’s nowhere to be found. It’s full of little, specific details: “And I looked in all the stores for you, I looked in Hudson News,” for example, or “For your information, it’s South Station at about 11:22.” Maybe it’s just that I’m from that part of the world, but these references help the song come alive for me.
And I missed songs like “Action Hero,” extolling the virtues of the suburban dad trying to keep his family and health together. And songs like “The Summer Place,” which kicks off the album with the tale of a woman desperately seeking to recapture her youth: “At fifteen, shoplifting was the only game she liked to play, at forty she’s so bored she thinks about it, then decides to pay…” And I really missed songs like “Firelight Waltz,” which perfectly captures a moment: “Mary, oh Mary, go find the light, take a hit from your whiskey and stumble inside, it’s a tune from your childhood and a soft yellow moon, and the firelight is just right for dancing…”
There are definitely moments where they stumble. I’m still not a huge fan of the single, “Richie and Ruben” – its story of a pair of clueless entrepreneurs seems too facile and surface-level for me. “Workingman’s Hands” is a little too obvious, although I quite like the line, “You save your money for a hole in the ground, a black car and a long wall of roses.” And “Hate to See You Like This” could have used a couple more drafts – it handles its subject matter a little too blithely.
But these are minor flaws compared to the heights Schlesinger and Collingwood reach on this record. Just listen to “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” a complex and compelling pop tune of the highest order. Or “A Road Song,” one of the band’s saddest and sweetest numbers. They know it’s a cliché – they say so in the lyrics – but that doesn’t make this song of longing from a traveling musician any less affecting, particularly when the band mixes in their trademark cultural observations: “In between the stops at the Cracker Barrel, and forty movies with Will Ferrell, I need some way to occupy my time, so I’m writing you a road song, sure hope you don’t mind…”
The record closes with what may be its most accomplished song, “Cemetery Guns.” It’s almost a children’s rhyme, describing a military funeral over martial drums and sweet acoustic guitars. I initially chuckled disappointedly at the chorus, with its “bang bang bang,” but once I figured out what they were doing, the song clicked into place. It’s the most ambitious thing here, even though it clocks in at under three minutes, and it’s the perfect way to end.
If you come to Fountains of Wayne for silly power pop, you may be disappointed in this album. There’s no “Bright Future in Sales,” no “’92 Subaru,” and definitely no “Stacy’s Mom.” What’s here, though, is an album of touching, sincere, funny and heartbreaking songs, the kind of thing that has been overshadowed by the novel and the quirky on previous records. Yeah, sometimes they deserve their bad rap, but Sky Full of Holes is an album to be proud of. From now on, if anyone questions my love for “that ‘Stacy’s Mom’ band,” I’m going to give them this.
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All right, I need to get going. But first, I promised you a free song, so here it is. Quiet Company’s third album, We Are All Where We Belong, hits on Oct. 4, and Austin’s favorite sons keep on giving us sneak previews of it. Here’s the second freebie, which is also the second track on the record, called “You, Me and the Boatman.” I think it’s tremendous. Let me know what you think.
Next week, who the hell knows?
See you in line Tuesday morning.