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Chris Collingwood remembers thinking it was the dumbest thing he'd ever heard. He and new pal Adam Schlesinger were looking for a band name to hang on the serious, introspective songs they'd penned together as serious, introspective college students. As they discussed various monikers, Schlesinger's mom overheard and had a suggestion. There was a statuary store just blocks away from Schlesinger's home in Wayne, New Jersey, called Fountains of Wayne. Mrs. Schlesinger always got a kick out of the name, and thought her son and his new college friend might, too.
"I told her she was crazy," Collingwood says now. "I told her it was the worst name I'd ever heard." Ten years later, having worn out a few other band names, Collingwood, 29, admits Schlesinger's mom was right--a point she often reminds him of when he sees her. "She's a sweet woman, and not really one to gloat," he says. "But she's not turning down any of the credit, that's for sure."
Collingwood and Schlesinger's 1996 debut album, Fountains of Wayne, is a brilliant CD stocked with sophisticated, smartly constructed songs that come off deceptively carefree and breezy. Many critics named it the top album of that year. It's certainly one of the best pure pop recordings of recent years.
Because Collingwood and Schlesinger co-write accomplished, well-crafted songs, it's tempting to picture the two as dedicated songwriters, huddled over guitars, sweaty hair falling over grimaced expressions as they search for the perfect placement of well-considered hooks and choruses. Not quite, says Collingwood. He says it took all of a week to write the CD's songs, and most of the songcraft took place on a pair of barstools at a neighborhood joint called the Radio Bar in Manhattan.
"Basically, we started all this by writing a bunch of titles on bar napkins and trying to get the other guy to laugh," Collingwood says. "We'd get drunk and just sit there writing and laughing. We wound up with a list of hundreds of titles. Then we'd decide between the two of us who was going to take which song, and then meet the next night and see what we'd come up with."
The barstool brainstorming was the first time Collingwood and Schlesinger had worked together since the days they were pooh-poohing the Fountains of Wayne name. Back then, the pair's first band, the Wallflowers, did little besides attract the attention of Jakob Dylan, who bought the band name. Their next group, Pinwheel, recorded an album for an independent label that not only failed to release the recording, but tried to keep the two songwriters from recording, sparking a legal battle that lasted for close to three years.
Once liberated of contractual bugaboos, Collingwood was hit with a creative impulse. He says he wrote three future Fountains of Wayne songs--"Joe Rey," "Leave the Biker" and the first FOW hit, "Radiation Vibe"--in about "half a day." He then called up Schlesinger and suggested they meet for drinks and try to get something going. Hundreds of bar napkins later, a band was born.
"It was deliberate that we were going to write the album and record it quickly, before we had time to think about anything," Collingwood says. The same cerebral method convinced him Fountains of Wayne wasn't such a dumb name after all. "Prior to this, Adam and I had both been careful, serious songwriters, in the vein of Simon and Garfunkel. We were much more careful about the arrangements and everything. But when we decided to make this record quickly and spontaneously, we figured that since doing it so fast was such a stupid idea, the band needed a stupid name as well."
Stupid never sounded so good. FOW songs like the stunningly beautiful "Sick Day," along with "I've Got a Flair" and the equally wonderful "Barbara H.," are pop masterpieces, with lyrics that lay easy around catchy melodies and memorable choruses. Other highlights include "Survival Car," a dB's-meets-the-Beach Boys romp, and "Leave the Biker," which mixes and matches major chords to charmingly plaintive lyrics. "He's got his arm around every man's dream," Collingwood sings. "With crumbs in his beard from the seafood special/Oh can't you see my world is falling apart/Baby, please leave the biker, leave the biker, break his heart." That same sense of a toothy grin amid aching observation charges almost every Fountains of Wayne song. Collingwood says the angst is nothing personal.
"I don't think there was any deliberate down-ness in the lyrics," he says. "There's a lot from the point of view of the outsider and the loner, but that's not necessarily from personal experience. It's just an easy thing to write about. And since the '60s, there's been a boy-meets-girl, boy-can't-get-girl sort of theme in music, so that's kind of an easy viewpoint to adopt, too."
Collingwood also shrugs off the crooked smile inherent in the clever "Please Don't Rock Me Tonight," a sneaky swipe at post-Spinal Tap bands that cling to rock 'n' roll cliches. ("Please don't rock me tonight," Collingwood croons wearily. "I'm not in the mood.") The song's aimed squarely at grunge bands, a special sore spot with Collingwood.