Sunday, September 13, 2015

Ten from Fountains of Wayne: "Yours and Mine"

#10

"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? 

Ten from Fountains of Wayne: "I-95" and "A Road Song"

#8 and #9

"I-95" / "A Road Song" /
Fountains of Wayne

What?  The only Fountains of Wayne song you know is their one pop hit, "Stacy's Mom"?  Now that's a shame.  Permit me to widen your horizons, with not one but ten FOW tracks that prove their genius...   

You know how rock stars, one they've made it big, love to write self-pitying songs about how hard life is on the road? (Not to mention self-pitying songs about groupies.) 
 
That's not Fountains of Wayne's turf. But these guys have been touring and making music since the early 90s -- they've done their time on the road.  As you'd expect, though, their take on it is somewhat different. 
 
 
 

From Traffic and Weather (2007)
 
Take "I-95," for example. Never once in this song do we hear anything about why the singer is driving on this highway.  All we hear is a numbing litany of things he notices at the anonymous rest stops along it.  You know the stuff -- Guns 'n' Rose CDs, Virginia Is For Lovers t-shirts, and (my favorite detail) Barney DVDs. Ah, the detritus of modern culture, "gifts" that nobody wants, in a place nobody wants to stop. The lagging tempo, the chromatic melody line -- it perfectly captures the boredom of a long-distance drive.
 
In verse two he's back on the road, fiddling with the radio knobs, trying to get a station. (What?  No Sirius/XM?  No iPod port?) For a minute, stars fill the sky and "it feels so cinematic" -- but, you know highway driving: Someone cuts in front of him and the mood is destroyed. 
 
But the melody lifts in the chorus, as we learn why he's doing it: "It's a nine-hour drive from me to you . . . And I'll do it 'til the day that I die / Just to see you." That's so wistful, so sweet, it gets me every time. And there's the coup de grace, that funny little guitar fill between the two "just to see you's," as if he's imagining her reply.  
 
Okay, okay, he could be a traveling salesman, or a long-haul trucker. But in this next song, he outs himself as a musician on the road. 
 
 
From Sky Full of Holes (2011)
 
He even calls it "A Road Song," and admits, "it may be a cliché." But not the way FOW tells it.  
 
They're been on the road so long, he's got no idea where they are (Wisconsin? Chicago?). In one brilliant rhyme -- "In between the stops at Crackerbarrel / And forty movies with Will Ferrell" -- he condenses all the crappy interstate travel tedium. 
 
In the later verses, though, he gives up the Everyman persona to give us backstage glimpses. "Some kid threw a bottle on stage / He had an arm like a pro" -- it's the little stuff that makes it real. Being a rock star isn't all glamorous -- in fact, he wouldn't even call himself a rock star. "I know it's not what you call necessary / And I know I'm no Steve Perry..." (the lead singer for Journey -- although, I'll admit, I had to Google that, which makes the disclaimer even funnier). 
 
It's not a lonesome song. The tempo clicks along, the melody skips around brightly.  He's working, it's all routine, it's fine. He just -- well, he just wanted to call her. He was thinking of her. No big deal.
 
Even when Fountains of Wayne try to act like rock stars, they end up making it about real people. In this case, them.  
 
  

Ten from Fountains of Wayne: "Hackensack"

#7

"Hackensack" / Fountains of Wayne

What?  The only Fountains of Wayne song you know is their one pop hit, "Stacy's Mom"?  Now that's a shame.  Permit me to widen your horizons, with not one but ten FOW tracks that prove their genius...   


 
 
From Welcome Interstate Managers (2003).

Probably the only pop song ever written about Hackensack, New Jersey -- but since FOW itself is named after a New Jersey garden center, it makes sense. 

Here's the set-up: The singer is sending this song out to an old friend/classmate who is now a celebrity of some kind -- actress/model/singer -- reminding her that "If you ever get back to / Hackensack / I'll be here for you." Sounds like she wasn't even his girlfriend; they had a class together in high school, that's all. But even then, "you were in all my dreams." Ah, the torches we carry!

He's following her career, wistfully, from afar: "I saw you talkin' / To Christopher Walken / On my TV screen." (Score points just for the Christopher Walken name check.) Then he shyly catches her up on what he's been up to: "I used to work in a record store / Now I work for my dad / Scraping the paint off of hardwood floors / Hours are pretty bad." That's how life slowly closes in on you, isn't it?

This guy is just so sweet, gradually sliding into his middle-class mid-American dead-end life. The one thing that keeps him going is the thought of that girl out in L.A. She might still remember him now, but odds are, in five years she won't. And that's why the refrain is so poignant: "But I will wait for you / As long as I need to / If you ever get back to Hackensack / I'll be here for you."

We kinda know she'll never come back; hey, he kinda knows it too. But a guy can hope, can't he?

This isn't a love song, really -- it's a song about modern American discontent, in a culture that teaches us that celebrity is all that matters. And this guy can't be happy in Hackensack so long as he's still yearning after The Girl Who Made It Big.

Suburban angst?  You bet, even though there's no drama or despair.  The track's sound is bouncy, light -- a soft drum track ticking along, the hooky guitar line, Collingwood's slightly flat boyish vocals, those dreamy falsetto back-ups on "I will wait for you." Our pal's life is tripping gently along just like this song. It's not horrible, it's just not . . . Special. And we were all promised Special, dammit.

Now if only the myriad 20-somethings whose life this song describes even knew this song existed . . .

Ten from Fountains of Wayne: "Hey Julie"

#6

"Hey Julie" / Fountains of Wayne

What?  The only Fountains of Wayne song you know is their one pop hit, "Stacy's Mom"?  Now that's a shame.  Permit me to widen your horizons, with not one but ten FOW tracks that prove their genius...   
 
From Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)

Considering how many music listeners hold, or will someday hold, an office job, you'd think there would be more songs about the nine-to-five cubicle grind. (Notable exceptions: the Beatles' "Hard Days' Night" and the Kinks' "Nine to Five.") Fist-bumps to Fountains of Wayne for crafting this perky cha-cha-cha earworm around this underserved topic.

That opening verse sets the gruesome scene: "Working all day for a mean little man / With a clip-on tie and a rub-on tan / He's got me running round the office like a dog around a track / When I get back home you're always there to rub my back." The lyrics clip along at a relentless pace, a two-chord seesaw stuck in a melodic rut. In verse two, it's like a scene out of the movie Office Space. "Hours on the phone making pointless calls / I got a desk full of paper that means nothing at all." And in verse three -- he really hates that boss -- another skewering vignette: "Working all day for a mean little guy / With a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie / He's got me running around the office like a gerbil in a wheel / He can tell me what to do but he can't tell me how to feel." Those deft details completely nail this horrible boss.

I always assumed that Julie's the loyal girlfriend who greets him when he gets home and helps him shake off the stresses of the day. (Does she open the door with a martini ready? Dressed in inviting lingerie?)  But when I saw this video, I realized that it was entirely possible that Julie is in fact his dog. (And a very cute dog, I must say.) Man's best friend, lying on the rug (though really on the off-limits couch), waiting for him to open the door, or to open the next can of dog food. But hey, that's love too, and I can with all honesty that my dog DOES make it all better when I get home.

I have to giggle when I listen to this song, but behind the giggle lies the pathos of an unsung life. Maybe there aren't more pop songs about photocopying and bookkeeping because most rock stars wouldn't be caught dead doing those things. All the more reason why we need Fountains of Wayne to come along and sing our songs, too.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Ten from Fountains of Wayne: "Planet of Weed"

#5

"Planet of Weed" / Fountains of Wayne

What?  The only Fountains of Wayne song you know is their one pop hit, "Stacy's Mom"?  Now that's a shame.  Permit me to widen your horizons, with not one but ten FOW tracks that prove their genius...   

v
 
From Traffic and Weather (2007)
 
Fountains of Wayne doesn't generally go for the stoner audience. But, let's be honest -- American suburbia is full of marijuana smokers. I think of my neighbors in Arlington, Virginia -- long-time civil servants, in a federal agency I won't name here -- who lived for their evening toke.
 
That fuzztone guitar, the clink of glasses, voices murmuring in the background: It's a ready-made party, in two minutes and 46 seconds.
 
What a lovely hippie utopia! "There's no hatred and no greed / Here on the planet of weed / Everyone gets along / It's quite pleasant indeed." He's urging his girlfriend to subscribe, and why wouldn't she?  Except for the little matter of how his weed habit just might be hampering his ability to move on with life. (Love how light-fingered FOW is with this satire -- you're free to check in or check out, no aspersions cast....)
 
And after all, it's such a lovely ambiance. "We've got magazines to read / We've got Doritos to eat / So lay back on the couch / And kick up your feet" -- why, yes, I think I will.
 
"There's a movie on TV/ I've been meaning to see / It's by Oliver Stone -- "  And instead of completing the verse, the guitars kick in.  Because -- wow. Oliver Stone. Heavy, man. 

Ten from Fountains of Wayne: "Hat and Feet"

#4

"Hat and Feet" / Fountains of Wayne


What?  The only Fountains of Wayne song you know is their one pop hit, "Stacy's Mom"?  Now that's a shame.  Permit me to widen your horizons, with not one but ten FOW tracks that prove their genius...   

 
 
From Utopia Parkway (1999)
 
It's the old, old story here -- Boy meets Girl, Boy gets Girl, Girl breaks up with Boy, Boy licks his wounds and feels sorry for himself.  Cue up Gene Pitney or Bobby Vinton, bewailing their lonesome fate. 
 
But, being Fountains of Wayne, these guys have to give it their own effervescent twist.
 
There's no way this is going to be a self-pity party -- not with that perky beat, that bouncy melody. When this track dials up on my iPod while I'm out walking, I can hardly keep myself from strutting.
 
Whatever pain and heartbreak our singer is feeling, he's already holding at arm's length, ruefully describing himself:  "I'm just a hat and feet / That's all that left of me / A spot on the sidewalk / A mark on the street / I'm just a hat and feet."
 
Sure, he's been "gutted," to use the Brit slang term. But that image -- the collapsed hat (I picture a straw boater) and feet (picture white bucks) -- is so delightfully cartoony, we can't feel too sorry for him. And neither can he, now.  
 
Cartoony?  It's better than that; it's a classic scene out of silent comedies. something by Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.  In the second verse, her rejection is "A falling piano / From out of a window." And in the bridge, he laments, "I'm just a sitting duck / That ran out of luck / I'm the unhappy guy / That didn't look up high / I started running when I saw it coming / It got faster and louder till I took a powder. . . . "  KaBLAM!!  When he stands up, there'll be stars circling around his head and a criss-cross of bandaids appearing magically on his forehead.
 
But you know what?  Somehow I think he's going to be just fine.



Ten from Fountains of Wayne: "All Kinds of Time"

#3

"All Kinds of Time" /
Fountains of Wayne


What?  The only Fountains of Wayne song you know is their one pop hit, "Stacy's Mom"?  Now that's a shame.  Permit me to widen your horizons, with not one but ten FOW tracks that prove their genius...   
 
 
From Welcome Interstate Managers (2003).
 
What?  Football season already?
 
Despite having grown up in a Big Ten household, with a father who was a college quarterback, I'm not much of a gridiron fan.  The NFL mostly bores me, and today's ramped-up college football is not much better.  But as autumn rolls around, I still have a soft spot for high school homecoming games (shout out to the Ripple Rockets!) And whenever I hear this song, I picture our high school quarterback, the sublime Dale Walker, going back for a pass.
 
"The clock's running out / The team's losing ground / To the opposing defense."  Okay, scene set.  Now zoom in on our hero: "The young quarterback / Waits for the snap / When suddenly it all starts to make sense." 
 
And then, the slow-mo moment supreme. Everything hectic fades away, and he's In The Zone. "He's got all kinds of time /  He's got all kinds of time / All kinds of time."  
 
How beautifully the melody expresses this. The verses' long yearning scale-climbing lines (just a hint of falsetto reach at the top) resolve in the soothing chromatics of the chorus. The loping, easy tempo has just enough syncopation to remain light and poised.  No marching band here, just a copasetic jazz combo.  
 
Yes, it's about football -- but it's also about grace.   "He seems so at ease / A strange inner peace / Is all that he's feeling somehow." As he scans the field, he has leisure to think about all his loved ones, the audience watching at home.  A ray of golden light finally shows him his open man -- "just like he planned."  And all the weeks and months and years of practice and conditioning and, yes, innate talent, suddenly yields this effortless moment of perfection.
 
I won't go on about Keats' "Ode to Autumn," but if you know that poem -- yeah, it's the same idea. Ripeness is all, and ripeness never lasts.  Savor these moments when they happen; they won't come again.
 
It's sheer poetry, this song. There's a story embedded in it, but it's also simply about This Moment and This Feeling.  Was the pass caught?  Did they score? We never learn -- and yet somehow, I don't even care. The game's already won in my book.
 
Oh, and by the way?  If you find yourself whistling this gorgeous tune for the rest of the day -- you're welcome.   



Ten from Fountains of Wayne: "Fire Island"

#2

"Fire Island" / Fountains of Wayne


What?  The only Fountains of Wayne song you know is their one pop hit, "Stacy's Mom"?  Now that's a shame.  Permit me to widen your horizons, with not one but ten FOW tracks that prove their genius...   

 
 
From Welcome Interstate Managers (2003).

As we face the end of summer, what could be better than this ode to an American suburban summer?

It's like a party montage from a John Hughes film, a catalog of forbidden teen behavior: "Driving on the lawn / Sleeping on the roof / Drinking all the alcohol" -- good kids gone bad! But wait, there's more: "Cranking up the tunes / 'Til the windows break / Feeding chocolate to the dog / Jumping on the couch /'Til the feathers all come out / While our parents are on Fire Island." (For me, the parents were off at Lake Wawasee, but that's a minor detail.)

This track shimmers with the texture of summer. Each line of the verses ripples up the scale in an eager rush of syllables, while shifting into a new key, like lapping waves on the beach. And that muted trumpet solo in the bridge -- it's a pure shot of sun-gilded 60s-era Bacharachiana, sheer nostalgic magic.

"We're old enough by now /To take care of each other," the kids declare in that yearning bridge. Of course, we know that they really aren't old enough to take care of each other; they're swimming naked in the pool, for chrissakes! "We're old enough by now / Don't worry 'bout a thing," they insist -- "Don't you remember last December / When you went to Steamboat Springs?" Oh, I can just imagine.

I've raised teenage kids; I should be listening to this with horror. But something about this song reawakens the teenager in me. The more I listen, the more layers of adulthood I peel off. It's September now; the nights are getting cooler, and summer is running out. Jeez, I'd better go swim naked in the pool while I've still got time.

Ten From Fountains of Wayne: "Action Hero"

#1

"Action Hero" / Fountains of Wayne

What?  The only Fountains of Wayne song you know is their one pop hit, "Stacy's Mom"?  Now that's a shame.  Permit me to widen your horizons, with not one but ten FOW tracks that prove their genius...    

 
From Sky Full of Holes (2011).
 
For anyone who loves (as I do) the Kinks' incisive portraits of English suburbia -- "Well-Respected Man,""Shangri-La," "Autumn Almanac"-- becoming a Fountains of Wayne fan is a natural. FOW's songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood have, along with Ben Folds, carved a niche as our top chroniclers of modern American middle-class life. Each of their songs is a finely observed short story;  "Stacy's Mom" is just the tip of the iceberg.  
 
Somehow Schlesinger and Collingwood still remember perfectly what it is to be a suburban teen or twenty-something.  But this lovely track from their most recent album, Sky Full of Holes, shows that they get grown-up life just as well.    
 
Don't be fooled by that title. Our hero is an ordinary sort of family guy, fumbling for his keys in the parking lot. (Predictably, his rowdy kids totally don't get it -- to them he's just a dad joke.) It's only in his mind that he's a superhero. Although, admit it -- in our celebrity-obsessed culture, don't we all long to be larger than life?  And how beautifully this track skates the line between buying into his fantasy and rejecting its premises.
 
But then, they throw in a curveball. In verse two, we learn that our action hero has been visiting Mount Sinai hospital (God is in the details: local NYC-metropolitan reference) for some tests. Suddenly the phrase "racing against time" takes on a whole new meaning. 
 
Gulp.
 
This is where Fountains of Wayne shines: In taking the lives of ordinary just-like-us folks and giving them voice. As that chugging power-pop setting uplifts and resonates, how could we not love this guy, doing the dad thing, cherishing his action-hero dreams, but still coming smack up against the all-too-grown-up reality whatever those scary tests reveal?
 
Do we not all know heroes like this? And do we not love Fountains of Wayne for putting them into song?

Monday, September 07, 2015

"Everything's a Miracle" / Greg Trooper

One of my favorite singer-songwriters, working the (to me) sweet spot between folk and roots rock. And I'm saddened to see that Greg has cancelled several fall shows because of some health setbacks.  Love to you, Greg, and all prayers and best wishes. Because a guy who can crank out tracks like this (from 2013's brilliant Incident on Willow Street) is part of what makes being a music fan totally worthwhile.


Greg has long been one of our premier chroniclers of mature love. "We once walked in thunder and lightning / And we once sang a simple harmony / And I said babe, oh my child, / Those are not miracles / And she said, [wait for it] / "Everything's a miracle to me."

And when that undeniable reality is laid out there -- how can we resist? "She loved holding hands / She loved certain hard rock bands / She loved that mean old man who loves just across the street." And here's the kicker -- he broke up with her ("I had to cut her loose").

But somehow she gets the last laugh, as she insists, "Babe, it's a miracle to me." And having been indoctrinated into her open-minded perspective -- as GT ever-so-subtly steers us --  we're on her side.

Who's the winner here? The guy who resists miracles, or the woman who believes in them?  Or -- let's go a stratum deeper -- the songwriter who set up the dichotomy in the first place?

I know where my money is invested. 

Love you, GT. Thanks for the years of music you've given me. And if my prayers can help, you've got' em.  

Friday, September 04, 2015

"Walking on the Spot" / Crowded House

I missed a lot of music in the 1990s -- pregnant, with two toddlers, who had time in 1994 to listen to pop music? And I'm guessing that Crowded House, hailing from New Zealand (via Australia), didn't make much of a splash with American audiences anyway. I have two friends who are confirmed Crowded House fans -- one from Spain and the other from Northern England.  I don't mean to make excuses for myself, but it is possible -- just possible -- that this record was never played in my hearing until a year ago.

But now that I've heard it -- oh, who could NOT fall in love with a melody this gorgeous?


Okay, now here is the lazy internet research. Crowded House grew out of a NZ band named Split Enz, which I think I must have heard of in the 1980s but ignored because MOST 1980s MUSIC SUCKED! (and even Uncle E will admit that.)  Two of their songs did lodge for a time on US charts, "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong." At least, when I listened to the iTunes samples of those songs, they were immediately familiar. So far, so good.

But my test of a great band is that they get better the deeper you go in their album tracks. (I'll admit that this litmus test is based on my experience as a Kinks fan. But hey, we all come from somewhere.) On that criterion, Crowded House hits it out of the park. The deeper I dig in their repertoire, the more I like it. When I finally dug out this track, from 1993's Together Alone album, I knew I had hit gold.

It's the soulfulness of this song that gets me. They have me by the third chord change, as an edgy discord switches up the lush intro. The synthesizers give us just a taste of accordion, Paris, melancholy wheeze, before resolving. I'm already in a vulnerable place, emotionally, and jeezus, the lyrics haven't even started!

And when they do -- oh man oh man, are we in tenebrous territory. "The odd times we slip / And slither down the dark hall / Fingers point from old windows / An eerie shadow falls." Poetry, my friends! But the shifting melody totally supports it, keeps us on uneasy ground.  

Crowded House's leader and songwriter, Neil Finn, has spoken about the making of this album as a mystical, brooding time. The band was living on Karekare beach in New Zealand, and Finn says everyone in the band was affected by the stark surrounding landscape.  Now that I know that, I can almost hear the rising tide in this song, the long sweeping curve of melody restlessly shifting in and out of minor key.

And yet it's not a downer, not totally. He's "walking on the spot / To show that I'm alive / Moving every bone in my body / From side to side." (Love the scansion on "bone in my body.")  I'm guessing there's an affair going on, possibly adulterous ("Will we be in our minds when the dawn breaks? / Can we look the milkman in the eye?" -- shades of "Tempted" by Squeeze).  But then again, he and a companion could just be going on a drug bender. At any rate, he's too wrapped up in his own moodiness to explain anything clearly. 

Things go further south in the last verse, as he sinks into his emotional hangover:
 
Walk around your home
And pour yourself a drink
Fire one more torpedo, baby
Watch the kitchen sink
Lounging on the sofa, maybe
See the living room die
Dishes are unwashed and broken
All you do is cry

Compare this to Nick Lowe's wistful losers-in-love -- "Lately I've Let Things Slide," "I'm a Mess," "I Read a Lot" -- or, a closer fit, to Joe Jackson's despairing "Solo (So Low)".  It's a dark night of the soul, all right.  But hey, he's still walking on the spot. Still upright, still moving.  It's a small victory, to be sure, but y'know?  Sometimes you're lucky to get even that.