Fountains of Wayne

Whenever a critics' favorite puts out a new album, you can expect a sizable rush to praise. The new one from Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers, is no exception. During the four years since their last release, fans of songwriting team Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood's arch, classic-rock-referenced punk pop have kept the flags flying and the lights burning in the window. But such high expectations fostered by records as perfect as 1999's Utopia Parkway or the band's 1996 self-titled debut are almost certain to be dashed.

Although best known for their sharp-toothed sarcasm and ironic distance, exemplified by such songs as "Red Dragon Tattoo" and "Leave the Biker," Schlesinger and Collingwood seem to have deliberately blunted their edge in favor of a more "mature" approach. While this is perhaps more fitting to both the pursuit of mainstream success and the dubious debate over so-called "artistic responsibility" in today's gloomy climate, it leaves the band sounding forced and arbitrary.

To be sure, there are great things on board. "Stacy's Mom" is perhaps the greatest single Cheap Trick never recorded. And the back-to-back "No Better Place" and "Valley Winter Song," peppered in typical Fountains of Wayne fashion with geographic references to the eastern seaboard, tell the sad tale of a woman who flees her home only to discover that things are lousy everywhere. Here, the simple shorthand of pop metaphor addresses brilliantly the fear and hopelessness felt by so many in the wake of recent events.

Unfortunately, little else on the album is as interesting. The band indulges in shameless genre hopping (the lounge pastiche "Halley's Waitress," the country clone "Hung Up on You"); cloying rockers about cube dwellers ("Bright Future in Sales," "Little Red Light"); and generic formula ("Hackensack," "Mexican Wine"). Everything is clever and catchy enough, but is rarely elevated by the attention to detail so abundant on their previous releases.

Of course, if you love Fountains of Wayne, you've gotta have this album. Heaven knows I've got my copy. But whereas Utopia Parkway owned my life after I heard it, Welcome Interstate Managers won't be my soundtrack this summer.


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