Fountains of Wayne
Utopia Parkway
(Atlantic Records)

At year's end, when critics and other know-it-alls compile their best-of lists for 1999, Fountains of Wayne's Utopia Parkway will be there.

Words like "smart" and "quirky" will adorn the disc, and no doubt there will be references to "heavenly" sounds and other pithy nods to the album's title. The accolades will be many, the adjectives inspired, and yet the yay-saying won't be enough. Utopia Parkway is better than all that.

Fountains of Wayne has released a near-perfect pop document, a refuge for fans of intelligent songcraft and an example of how melody in the hands of masters can be a beautiful thing.

Fountains of Wayne is led by New Yorkers Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, who pen tuneful and witty observations of the passing scene. Their protagonists range from rich girls slumming in Queens to empty-nested housewives finding home and family in bourbon bottles. Varied references to Big Apple locales put a place with the faces the band sings about, and a steady sarcasm puts teeth to the CD's many major chords and sweetly sung vocals.

But the band's humor always plays fair. And there's a strong sense of fun that softens even the sharpest barbs. On the magnificent "Red Dragon Tattoo," for example, a startling melody and well-placed harmonies are accompanied by hand claps and tambourines, as Collingwood sings of a guy who gets tanked and heads off to get a tattoo on Coney Island. The muddle-headed attempt to win a girlfriend is at once snotty and sensitive, with the biggest laughs coming when face-rakes are applied to tattooed acts of yesterday ("I bought a .38 Special CD collection/Some Bactine to prevent infection") and today ("Will you stop pretending I've never been born/Now I look a little more like that guy from Korn").

Sardonic asides to musical brethren can also be found on "Laser Show," a Wings-like celebration of entertainment excess replete with swipes at Pink Floyd and Metallica, and "Go, Hippie," which laments the lost lifestyle of a big, bored, brownie-tossing culture corpse. The song is wonderful in the way it offers an unflattering yet sympathetic portrait. The pseudo-'60s soundtrack adds a smile, as well.

Despite the fun and the many grins, Utopia Parkway's no novelty record. Indeed, the CD's best song ranks as the disc's most mature look at human emotions. The song "Troubled Times" is a killer tune of wistful jujitsu where recollections of triumph over trouble turn out to be imagined memories, a series of envisioned scenarios en route to a bliss that never was.

It's a touching twist enhanced by an intro that literally sighs, a melody that allows the melancholy lyrics to hang like heavy clouds and a chorus that soars with understated elegance. "Troubled Times" is Fountains of Wayne's finest moment on an exceedingly fine CD, and reason enough to think that even better things are down the road.

--Ted Simons

Various artists
The Last Soul Company
(Malaco Records)

The nasty rhythm and blues on this boxed-set history of Mississippi's Malaco Records makes current R&B radio sound like pod-people music.

Damn near nothing presently found either on the dial or in CD racks suggests that the deep South is still rearing soul artists as gritty as what Specialty, Excello and Stax/Volt ground out in the '50s and '60s. Fortunately, Malaco has kept the tradition with visceral singers like Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Bland, Bobby Rush and Ernie Johnson, who avoid nostalgically milking their predecessors à la Michael Bolton's sodomizing of Otis Redding.

In fact, the Malaco roster is of a lineage so faithful to the groove that there's not been the required break in tradition to allow any nostalgic glance over the shoulder. What's most impressive about The Last Soul Company's 112 songs is what little difference exists between the label's 1971 recording of King Floyd's "Baby Let Me Kiss You" and recent stuff by the likes of Mel Waiters, Little Milton and Tyrone Davis.

No doubt those addicted to VH1's antiseptic soul will grimace at the Vitalis greasiness evident throughout the Malaco catalogue: The label has always featured too-brassy horn sections and back-up singers with less than perfect harmonies, and prefers ego-heavy shouters, who no doubt survive on a circuit of tough Southern roadhouse jobs. Malaco Records is the equivalent of a Cadillac proudly bearing a 100 dollar red paint job, and coming across all the cooler for not rubbing out the rough spots.

This boxed set shows Malaco gradually replacing its tawdry horns with equally rough synthesizer washes, both in support of the same chest-poking sexual confidence (check out Shirley Brown's "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man" and Bobby Rush's "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show") that, over the label's history, has offered crutches to many a limping libido. There's not much available to the contemporary blues crowd as dirty as Johnnie Taylor's minor-key "Last Two Dollars," or Mel Waiters' "Got My Whiskey," which attempted to wiggle onto the charts but remained too gritty to get past radio's gatekeepers.

In fact, Malaco has never had a number-one pop record, and of the three Top 10 chartings in its history, the last was in 1976. But fuck the charts--compare disc one to disc six, and see if you don't agree that the label has gotten better over time for not having sacrificed that gutbucket thang. Not everything in music gets watered down over time.

--Dave McElfresh


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