This Better Be Good
Fountains of Wayne Returns with Traffic and Weather

I am headed east for Easter, so it’s a really quick one this week. I was originally going to review Silverchair’s amazing Young Modern this time, but I was unable to secure an import copy, and I don’t want to write something based on nothing but MySpace streams. Still, I’ve gotta say this: having the actual CD in hand can only improve my opinion of this album, and I already think it’s the record of the year.

But yeah, I only have one CD to discuss today, and it’s the new Fountains of Wayne.

If I ever need reminding that the Grammy awards mean nothing whatsoever, all I have to do is remember that these Empire Staters won the Best New Artist trophy in 2004 on the back of their third album, Welcome Interstate Managers. The Fountains (songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood) struck gold with a silly hit single called “Stacy’s Mom,” a guilty-pleasure novelty tune that introduced the world to what fans of the band had known for more than half a decade.

At least, I hope it did, because what those fans know is that “Stacy’s Mom” is not representative of the band’s work, at all. It’s a great song, of course, with its Cars-like rhythms and cheeky lyrics, but the heart of the band could be heard elsewhere on Managers. Fountains of Wayne, more than just about any other band, is able to find the sadness and sweetness in modern life. Their songs are peppered with pop culture references, but rarely in an artificial way – when they mention Christopher Walken in “Hackensack,” for instance, it’s heartbreakingly perfect.

Welcome Interstate Managers made #3 on my top 10 list in 2003, despite four bum tracks at the end, which should tell you how much I love the opening three-fourths of the record. It took the band four years to craft the follow-up, Traffic and Weather, which was okay with me – the last thing I wanted was a rushed, cash-in collection of “Stacy’s Mom” clones. It’s no exaggeration to say that Traffic and Weather topped both my “most anticipated” and “most dreaded” lists for 2007.

The good news is, Traffic and Weather contains not one carbon copy of the band’s big hit. It’s a solid collection of 14 new songs that, on the surface, seems to continue the band’s winning streak. You have to dig a little deeper for the bad news, unfortunately – this album contains very few of the sad, beautiful moments that I love Fountains of Wayne for. If you’re in the market for quirky pop songs with clever lyrics and good storytelling, you’ll get that here. But if you’re looking for anything that approaches the emotional heights of “Valley Winter Song,” you’ll be disappointed.

That disappointment will be mild, though, considering the quality of most of these songs. Traffic opens with the single, “Someone to Love,” which is easily one of the best songs Schlesinger and Collingwood have written. It’s the story of Seth Shapiro and Beth McKenzie, two New Yorkers that seem destined to meet and fall in love… until the knockout punch of the third verse. It’s catchy, it’s hooky, it’s perfectly produced. It’s everything that a good Fountains of Wayne single should be.

The second track, “92 Subaru,” is even better. It’s a send-up of every anthem ever written about a car, with a pumping guitar riff and a superb chorus. (“You better make way ‘cause I’m coming through, in my late ’92 baby blue Subaru…”) “Yolanda Hayes” is a delight, all about meeting the love of your life through the window at the DMV. And the title song imagines two newscasters in love, with one assuring the other, “We belong together like traffic and weather…” That song’s a repetitive dance drone that will stick in your head, despite not being as immaculately crafted as most of the other songs.

And on it goes, Schlesinger and Collingwood spinning out one clever bon mot after another over classic pop melodies. “This Better Be Good” is the tale of a suspicious boyfriend waiting for an explanation from his cheating girl. “Revolving Dora” is a brief, bouncy character study full of nifty details. And the great “New Routine” follows several people as they decide to move to each other’s home towns, looking for fresh experiences.

But amidst all the witty wordplay, the genuine emotion that made Welcome Interstate Managers such an affecting piece of work seems to have been shunted to the side. There are a couple of lovely moments, most notably “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim,” a sweet song about a tired couple searching for their luggage after a long flight. Its final verse is so heartwarming (“Michael says, ‘Heather, have you had enough?’ Heather says, ‘Michael, you know that it’s you I love…’”) that I can almost forgive “Strapped for Cash,” the synth-driven drivel that follows.

But wait – the next track is “I-95,” another great ballad, and to these ears the highlight of the album. It details a long-distance romance, and the lengths one will go to maintain it: “It’s a nine-hour drive from me to you south on I-95, and I’ll do it ‘till the day that I die if I need to, just to see you…” This song, more than any other on Traffic and Weather, puts you in a place, introduces you to the people who live there, and makes you feel what they feel. In the verses, the singer describes in detail the items on sale in a roadside gift shop, and rather than an artificial list of cultural touchstones, it ends up as a terrific scene-setter. This is the kind of song Fountains of Wayne does better than any other band, period.

The rest of the album isn’t bad, but it aims low. “Planet of Weed” may be the most dismal thing to ever bear the Fountains name, but otherwise, Traffic and Weather is a perfectly fine collection of smirking pop songs. For the most part, it’s exactly what people who’ve never really investigated the band might assume they’re like.

But for those of us who know what they’re capable of, the album is a mild disappointment. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s chock full of hooks, and it’ll make you chuckle more than once, but it won’t stay with you. In a year like this one, with so many great albums hitting so early, Traffic and Weather is the first letdown, but don’t let that stop you – think of it as a B-minus on a report card full of As. It’s an acceptable grade, if you ignore the heavy sigh of the teacher who knows her favored student can do better than this.

Next week, Silverchair and Marillion, hopefully.

See you in line Tuesday morning.