L.A. Stories
Coast to Coast on Out-of-State Plates

Los Angeles is small.

This is not the observation I was expecting to make. I just returned from five days in and around L.A., staying with my friends Mike and Kate in their lovely house in Burbank. And I was honestly terrified of going to L.A., having heard about what an enormous mess of civilization it is. I was expecting Chicago times 50, all tall buildings and smog. And what I got was an endless green suburban strip mall. It’s in no way the overwhelming experience I thought it would be. It’s kind of… nice.

I’m certain it’s different if you live there. But the L.A. I discovered was a pretty inviting place, standing in direct contrast to a nightmare like New York. Mike and I went to downtown Los Angeles, where all the tall buildings live, and found virtually no one there. They were all at the shops and eateries that dot Rodeo Drive and Ventura Boulevard and other streets that have been assimilated into popular culture to such an extent that they sound like fictional places. But even the number of people milling about wasn’t stifling – L.A., on first impression, is a city that knows the value of having room to breathe.

I got my first really good look at the Pacific Ocean, too – Mike and I went to Santa Monica, where the houses are $50 million. I feel a bit like I’m cheating on my beloved Atlantic when I say this, but the Pacific is gorgeous. Beautiful waves, clean water – I could live on that beach. I could also live at Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard (another fictional street), with its two floors of new and used CDs featuring just about everything that’s ever been commercially available. Remember that bit in Clerks when Randal goes to Big Choice Video, and falls on his knees in reverence? That was me at Amoeba.

We hit the San Diego Comic Con on Friday, to see the Eisner Awards. The Con is always a little depressing for me, since the focus is so removed from comics. It’s harder to take the artform seriously when you have Princess Leia walking around in her metal bikini and a legion of drooling fanboys leering after her as if they’ve never seen a girl before. Actually, I have this theory – comic fans are always saying that comics aren’t considered a serious medium, but I think they are, at least more than they have been. Look at the success of Persepolis and Blankets and the McSweeney’s comics issue.

No, I think that many fans are complaining because their beloved superhero comics aren’t considered great works of art. These are the ones whining that The Avengers doesn’t get nominated for Eisners, and that Batman Begins won’t win Best Picture. You can do neat things with superheroes (see Eisner-winning wonder Ex Machina), but in the end they’re still the adventures of men and women in tights, beating up on each other. Critics are never going to take that seriously – no matter how much pathos you bring to Bruce Wayne, he’s a guy who dresses up like a bat and fights supervillains. Real, serious work is being done in the comics industry, and it’s being recognized, but until Marvel dominates the major awards, I think many fans will still feel passed over, because they want people to take Spider-Man as seriously as they do.

Anyway, I got to meet a whole bunch of interesting people at Comic Con, most of whom could walk down any street in America and not be recognized, and I also got to see the aforementioned Eisner Awards. This year they were half awards show and half memorial to the great Will Eisner, who passed away in January. Everyone who came to the stage had an Eisner story – the man was as beloved as he was talented, and his loss is an incalculable one to the comics industry. My favorite story was from Scott McCloud, who presented the first-ever Digital Comics Award, and detailed his quick conversation with Eisner about online comics. Eisner, who has only known print comics for most of his life, at first dismissed their digital counterparts, but a quick confab with McCloud at a panel convinced him to embrace them publicly. “The industry has taken years to consider digital comics as comics,” McCloud said. “It took Will Eisner about 40 seconds.”

That night, I also hooked up with Kevin Cafferty, a guy I haven’t seen since high school, and it was fun catching up with him. We then visited what is perhaps the most drug-inspired and bizarre idea for a restaurant I have ever heard – a cook-your-own-steak steakhouse. You pay $20, they bring you a raw steak, and you trudge over to this communal fire-pit grill and cook it yourself. Which seems to me to run counter to the whole idea of a restaurant, which is that I am not a good cook, and I have the money to pay someone to be a better cook than me. A fun time was had by all, and I got to drop a reference to Condorman, something I don’t have the opportunity to do very often, so it was a good night.

Mike and I also attended a Dodgers game at their very own stadium in L.A. It’s a very different experience than going to Fenway Park, for instance, or even Camden Yards – it’s more subdued and relaxed, everyone just having a good time. Mike goes into more detail about our time at the game on his blog here. Tell him I sent you.

Overall, a great trip. Many heartfelt thanks to Mike and Kate for putting up with me all weekend, and for cooking a great stir-fry meal on my last day, and for driving me around to every place I wanted to visit. I can hardly wait to go back.

* * * * *

From one coast to the other.

Fountains of Wayne are a defiantly East Coast group. They fill their songs with references to New York, New England and the Atlantic Ocean, and having been an East Coaster for a long time myself, it was always fun to time my trips over the Tappan Zee Bridge with the reference to it in “Little Red Light,” for example. Fountains songs are about their sense of place as much as they are their witty wordplay and their insanely catchy melodies, and Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood are masters at setting a scene.

If all you’ve heard is “Stacy’s Mom,” you may find that hard to believe. Fountains of Wayne is, above all, a fun pop band, but their serious attention to craft often gets overlooked, and their smash hit novelty song from 2003 certainly isn’t going to help that situation. Their breakthrough record, Welcome Interstate Managers, is also their best, and lovely numbers like “All Kinds of Time” and “Valley Winter Song” put to bed the notion that Fountains is a joke band. To put it in Spinal Tap parlance, they’re clever, but they’re not stupid.

Here’s a testament to their skill as songwriters: their new double-disc collection, Out-of-State Plates, is all b-sides and rarities and unreleased tunes, and it’s still the power-pop album of the year so far. It’s a sprawling set, 30 tracks (three of them are non-songs), and the tone is as random as you might expect. It veers from fully produced marvels like “California Sex Lawyer” to demos like “You’re Just Never Satisfied” to live covers of ELO songs, and you can’t escape the clearing house feeling. But very few of these songs are unworthy of release, and as a whole, it’s constantly surprising and fun.

The new tracks are terrific. The set opens with “Maureen,” probably the coolest song I’ve heard this year. It’s told from the point of view of “that guy,” the sweet friend who’s in love with the girl who won’t stop telling him all about her romantic adventures. Disc two’s opener, “The Girl I Can’t Forget,” describes “a night I can’t remember” with the title gal, and while the humor at times dips into Weird Al territory, it’s a rollicking fun tune.

Overall, the lyrics here are snarkier than those of the regular album tracks, which may explain why a few of them were left off. “I’ll Do the Driving,” for example, is about a guy in love with an airhead – “She says she loves Johnny Cash, the man in red, I just shake my head…” In “Baby I’ve Changed,” the protagonist lists the things he will do to help repair a relationship, including “I’ll let you listen to Sugar Ray.” And some of the jokes could use a polish or two, like “Half a Woman,” a romantic tragedy starring a magician and his assistant. (I’m sure you can figure out where it goes…)

But when they turn more serious and quirky, they shine. “I Know You Well,” a Japanese bonus track from their second album, Utopia Parkway, is lovely, as is “Karpet King” (which repeats the line, “Lay it down”) and the sweet “I Want You Around.” Buried at track 29 is “Small Favors,” a perfect example of Collingwood and Schlesinger at their romantic best: “I’ve been carrying a torch around, and I’ve forgotten how to snuff it out…”

The Fountain boys take from so many diverse influences that the range of covers on Out-of-State Plates should be no surprise. Here is their irony-free take on “Baby One More Time,” treated like the great little pop song it is, but here also is Jackson Browne’s gorgeous “These Days,” and the Bacharach/David chestnut “Trains and Boats and Planes.” I know of few bands that would have both Ricky Nelson’s “Today’s Teardrops” and ELO’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” in their record collections, but here they both are, performed with respect.

This record is absolutely a stop-gap while the dynamic duo works on their real follow-up to Interstate Managers. But as stop-gaps go, it’s a damn enjoyable one, with very few bum tracks (maybe the three Christmas songs could go…), and a huge percentage of tunes that are good enough to have been on any of their albums. Like They Might be Giants, Fountains of Wayne will probably always be considered a novelty act, and that’s a shame – they’re actually one of the cleverest and best pop bands around right now, and while I wouldn’t recommend Out-of-State Plates as the best starting point, their catalog deserves a closer examination.

Next week, Bob Mould and/or Sufjan Stevens.

See you in line Tuesday morning.