Sunday, September 13, 2015

Ten from Fountains of Wayne: "Yours and Mine"


"Yours and Mine" / Fountains of Wayne

If you've been paying attention, you should be a Fountains of Wayne fan by now.  But just to seal the deal . . .    

From Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)
Wistful, plangent, bittersweet -- here's a Fountains of Wayne song that hits all those notes at once. 
It's a wisp of a song, only 1:02 minutes, a simple acoustic strum.  It's not telling a story, it's not sketching in characters.  It feels personal, and true. The setting is cocktail hour: "In about an hour the sunlight's gonna fade / And you and me will divvy up the wine / Like everything else here / Yours and mine." I picture white fluffy towels with those cutesy titles embroidered on them, a 1960s cliché of just-wedded domestic bliss.
 The other verse switches to Sunday morning, and another cozy scene: "Picking up the paper /  Coffee's been made / It's Book Review and Face the Nation time / Like everything else here / Yours and mine." I'm guessing these aren't suburbanites, but Manhattanites (picking up the Sunday Times from a newsstand, a Manhattan ritual). 

Still . . . is it just me, or do I detect a shadow here?  All this divvying up, the parceling out of whose stuff is whose, taking their separate sections of the paper.  I'm flashing to one of the saddest songs ever written, the Kinks' "Property," in which a divorcing couple splits up their household goods. (I know that the FOW guys know this song; they're longtime Kinks fans.) Maybe this couple isn't there yet, but if their names are still chalked on everything in the apartment -- well, things could go south. 

The song does start with a fading sunset, and listen to how Collingwood's vocal curls sadly downward on "yours and mine." (And spikes upward anxiously on "everything".)

I'd think I was reading too much into this if I didn't know that Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood are such subtle songwriters, and such insightful storytellers. Would they really be content with a simple ditty about a happy couple?  I'd love to know what you think, because I'm still up in the air.

And whichever way you read it -- it's a beautiful little song to close out the weekend. Shall we all pour a glass of wine and toast Fountains of Wayne? 


NickS said...

I'm impressed that you've just blogged 10(!) Fountains of Wayne songs and convinced. I'm still working my way through the list, but as a set they're more impressive than any of the songs are by themselves.

You've previously blogged about "Hey Julie" and, while it's a very good song, I found myself resisting your enthusiasm slightly. But listening to a bunch of their best songs I do hear the depth of their craftsmanship.

I still feel some qualms. For example, unlike you, I wince slightly at the rhyme of "talkin'" and "Walken." But, at this point, I'd only qualify that as a qualm after giving them there due as songwriters. This is one of my favorites, it's short, but it all works. It is easy to enter into the mood of the song.

NickS said...

Having been listening to the songs I find myself coming up against an interesting question. I've said before that in evaluating songs I try to figure out what the ambition of the song is and, separately, how well it achieves that ambition.

That's a completely subjective assessment, of course, so I don't pretend that it's much more complicated than just asking, "do I like this song." But it can be helpful, and it makes it easier for me to say that: I respect a song which performs a non-ambitious task expertly. There's obviously a huge place for that in pop music. But I also think that if your ambitions are minor then the execution has to be good; there's much less room to have obvious weaknesses and still pull off a good song.

This series of posts has absolutely convinced me that FoW's craft and songwriting are more ambitious than I would have thought on a passing listen. But, I wonder, to what extent do I expect sincerity to be part of songwriting ambition?

On one hand, what is sincerity anyway? We're long past the death of the author. Not only do we not expect songs to be a direct expression of the writer's personal beliefs or experiences, the writer's intention may not matter at all (cue Richard Thompson's cover of "Oops I Did It Again" as a demonstration of how well-crafted a song it is. Or, for a different example, consider how many Randy Newman songs are both dizzyingly ambitious and hardly "sincere" in a conventional sense).

On the other hand, it's hard to shake the romantic feeling that songs should try to be about something. That it's possible to have a great deal of fun producing things which play with genre, but that lasting art should reflect human experience in some way (I say that thinking of the way in which some filmmakers are described as just "making movies about movies.")

I don't have a good answer for that (my sympathies are closer to the latter position but not in any way that I feel comfortable about), let alone what it would mean to ask whether FoW are "sincere."

But, as I think about which of these songs I like best I find myself gravitating to songs like this one or "Action Hero" whereas some of the others feel like they are closer to being "merely clever." ("Hackensack," for example, though it's quite possible I'm being unfair to it).

Holly A Hughes said...

Nick, I think you're confusing sincerity with autobiography. There's no question in my mind that these songwriters sincerely empathize with the characters in their songs. I happen to find it refreshing to listen to storytelling that doesn't have ego mixed up in it. It's also what I love about the Kinks. Musically, the songs also read as "sincere," not slick or pumped-up with anthemic refrains (my biggest beef with Springsteen is those self-dramatizing repeated choruses cranked up to 11). FOW's subtlety, and their lack of preachiness, is a lesson I wish more bands would emulate. And as for "the romantic feeling that songs should try to be about something" -- how are these songs not "about something"? They are about life, and disappointment, and how to push through anyway. Which, when you think about it, applies more to the lives we listeners live than your usual pop songs about how to get laid. If all you hear is clever genre songs, then you don't hear the same band I do. Not that there's anything wrong with that . . .

NickS said...

Nick, I think you're confusing sincerity with autobiography.

I agree that I'm confused; but I don't think that's the source of my confusion. I'm still mulling over what I'm trying to say but perhaps I'd put it this way. You've done a good job trying to answer the question of, "what is the intended meaning of this song?" (which is, in itself a hard question, and your posts are helpful). I'm then asking (in an unclear way) the questions, "do I buy it? Does this song move me? Am I convinced of anything by this song and/or does it offer me phrases or images which will stick with me and help me understand the world?"

Put that way, those are the sorts of questions which are poorly suited to a forum like this -- you can only answer them in subjective and provisional ways. They're still worth talking about, and can be interesting to kick around, but the challenge is even establishing a shared vocabulary for discussion purposes. In this case I don't know if a word like "sincerity" is helpful, because we're using it in different ways. You say, "there's no question in my mind that these songwriters sincerely empathize with the characters in their songs." I don't disagree with that but my concern is that I'm not sure that the characters exist outside of the songwriter's mind.

That's what I was thinking of when I referenced the idea of filmmakers who make are seen and making movies about movies rather than about life (and, coincidentally, I was just reading a discussion of the Coen brothers today which described them in precisely those terms). I do believe that, as songwriters, they have an image for a scene or a character and that they are sincerely trying to do justice to that image. I'm just not sure if buy the image -- and I mean it when I say that I'm not sure; for all of these songs I do find my reactions shifting as I listen to them more than once.

This is already becoming a long comment without me trying to offer an interpretive theory of my own, which I intend to do at some point, but for now let me close with a couple of notes (split into a separate comment for space reasons).

NickS said...

1) I know that I often show up in comments to quibble, and I want to emphasize that it isn't a sign of disagreement, necessarily. In this case I'm 70-80% in agreement with you. I am fully convinced by this series that they are very good songwriters and worth taking seriously. I'm just, at that point, still trying to take my own measure of the songs.

2) I was thinking about other songwriters that are comparable to FoW in various respects (Jonathan Richman for his deceptive simplicity; Tom T Hall for his many songs-as-vignettes, . . .), and one of the people that I thought of was Weird Al Yankovic. Poking around a bit I found one song which seems surprisingly on-topic: Skipper Dan is one of his original songs, not a parody, and it's a tasteful and unexpectedly moving song about someone working a disappointing job and having to swallow his dreams each day. I'd be curious if you agree that it's a fair comparison to "Hey Julie." Because, to some extent, that's what I was getting at with the comment about sincerity -- I think Weird Al is an excellent (and often underrated) songwriter, and I don't think it's any insult to compare somebody else to him. I also think that the fact that it's a Weird Al song shapes how one responds to it and that it's interesting to figure out how and why that makes a difference.

3) Tangentially: I do feel somewhat guilty about having mentioned Springsteen. Not only do I know you dislike him, I'm not a fan either -- there are a half-dozen (or so) Springsteen songs which I like a great deal and beyond that I don't care about most of his recordings. I thought of him in this context for two reasons; first the Jersey references but more importantly because I was thinking about what it means for a songwriter to be willing to be square. That's not a word I use very often, but I remember reading a movie review sometime this summer (I can't remember the movie unfortunately) in which the person argued that one of the strengths of the movie was that it wasn't afraid to be square.

Indie-rock often prizes hipness (that isn't as true for other genres of rock) and it's interesting to think about the ways in which FoW push against that. Not completely of course, they're too self-consciously clever to be completely un-hip, but "All Kinds of Time," for example, is working with a base image which is familiar, cliched, and not the sort of thing that hipsters would celebrate (in a cross-era comparison, for example, you could never imagine Steely Dan singing about an athlete in a non-sarcastic way).

But, having been reminded of Springsteen, for those reasons, I don't think he's actually a useful point of reference for FoW, so I apologize.

NickS said...

Let me try again, and see if I can be a little bit more specific.

I've been really enjoying "All Kinds of Time" and the more I listen to it the more I feel like it's a (delightful) fantasy. Which is to say that I'm not convinced that it puts me in the head of a High School quarterback. It feels like a song which captures a familiar cinematic image -- the moment in an action scene (be it sports or a shootout) when the ambient noise drops out, the action slows to slow motion, and there's a moment of calm and peace within the kinetic movement.

Thinking about it now, it's entirely possible that movies picked up that from the slow-motion replay in sports where, again, the crowd noise is edited out, and we're given the chance to see something that was invisible at normal speed and to wonder how the athlete was able to accomplish that.

I have no real basis on which to judge what those moments feel like for the person doing them. So, on that level, I have no standing to judge if the song is accurate in it's portrayal or not. I've certainly heard athletes talk about everything slowing down. That said, it doesn't necessarily ring true to me. In my own moments of feeling something like being "in the zone" I associate that with feeling like I'm moving faster because I'm not thinking as much -- I can react on impulse. So the description in the song of the quarterback's reverie, and thinking about his family seems like poetic license.

That's okay! It's a great song, and I am completely seduced by gorgeous tune.

I can think of other songs I like which also seem like they take images from popular culture and use them as the basis of a song (Guy Clark's "Last Gunfighter Ballad" or the impossibly beautiful live version of Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman" for two).

I don't want to just reduce my reaction to biography -- do I think the songwriter is writing about something they have personal experience of. Perhaps I would be better off talking about the tension between originality and cliches.

I think it's really difficult to avoiding cliches (cue John Hartford singing, "You know as much of a lift / as love songs are they sure are hard to write"), cliches represent images or tropes which are lodged strongly in the imagination. So, inevitably, most creative work either contains elements of cliches or at least rubs up against them.

For the FoW songs which I hesitate over (primarily "Hackensack", which I still am not sure that I'm being fair to and reserve the right to change my mind, and "Hey Julie," which I enjoyed the first time you posted it but, for some reason, like less in the context of the rest of the songs. I'm not sure why) I just worry that they're a little too comfortable borrowing deeply familiar pre-existing images. I don't feel that way about all the songs -- both "Action Hero" and "Yours and Mine," for example, feel strikingly original, and I appreciate you sharing both of them.