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Baby One More Time

Peerless pop band Fountains of Wayne maintain a market profile till the revolution comes

Almost any two-disc set can be improved by paring it down to one. This goes double for an outtakes-and-oddments collection, and triple for Fountains of Wayne's Out-of-State Plates, 30 tracks in 82 minutes that encompass two annoying nonmusical radio spots, an inaudible 15-second joke cut, and a live remake of their 1996 debut's "She's Got a Problem." The remaining 26 could be squeezed onto a single disc. Instead, these apparently facile, actually painstaking popmeisters chose to nearly double their three-album output by adding two new songs to a bunch of old ones. "Maureen" concerns a shared inamorata who should keep the sexual details to herself, "The Girl I Can't Forget" a potential lifemate who posts the singer's bail. Both are high-gloss standouts on a well-timed potpourri that establishes both how hard it is to turn out material worthy of Utopia Parkway and Welcome Interstate Managers and how often Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger come close. Two of the six covers here, Dionne Warwick's "Trains and Boats and Planes" and Britney Spears's ". . . Baby One More Time," are as redolent and fetching as any of FOW's peaks. But of the other four, all dandy enough--Jackson Browne, Aztec Camera, Ricky Nelson, ELO--only Browne's "These Days" would have a shot at my pare-down. So let them release it all.

Back in 1996, when they were 28 instead of 37 and theoretical hotshots on Atlantic rather than Virgin, one of the wittier label bios I can recall summed up Collingwood and Schlesinger's aesthetic achievement: "Fountains of Wayne can do in two-and-a-half minutes what it takes some bands at least 3:10 to accomplish: drive a big, insidious chorus into your head that will ruin your entire weekend." True, when time came to heatseek, Atlantic achieved video airplay success with 3:41 of the memorably meaningless "Radiation Vibe" before flopping with the pointed 2:42 follow-up "Leave That Biker." But at least everyone was trying.

This was back in that storied time when MTV was supposed to be for music, and also back when putative alt-rock like Spacehog, Nada Surf, and the Presidents of the United States of America would crease the charts often enough to project an aura of marketability onto Fountains of Wayne. All these bands were devoted to that tricky amalgam of melodic grace, magpie retentiveness, luck, and practice practice practice known as tunecraft, and they unleashed enough insidious choruses to make rock and roll fans who'd been hook fiends since their pubic hair was peach fuzz wonder if there mightn't be more to music than something you could hum when the Discman broke. So although Fountains of Wayne were rolling out many more such choruses than most, that didn't earn them as much status as it did, say, XTC when power pop was in flower--especially since Collingwood and Schlesinger's vocals favored post-grunge's snotty abrasiveness.

Easily though those choruses rolled, it took three years for Fountains of Wayne to follow up. Utopia Parkway improved on Fountains of Wayne not so much melodically, although its sweet rush did come on quicker, as lyrically, by thematizing the suburban subtext the band shared with so much alt. It also adjusted to times that had changed radically for tunecrafters--the vocals were more boyish for a boy-group era many hook fiends took as a signal to graduate to noise, nostalgia, or the fine arts. For the band, this was a formal development, one that resisted contrarian convention rather than courting the great girl mass. Schlesinger had provided the title tune for Tom Hanks's '60s teenpop movie That Thing You Do!, but he knew '60s weren't '90s any more than six was nine. When Atlantic proposed making a single out of ". . . Baby One More Time," which the two smitten songwriters had recorded ad hoc in Schlesinger's apartment, the band withdrew it, and you can be sure nobody at Atlantic, if there's anyone left, thinks that was why Utopia Parkway failed to crease anything but critics' polls. By 1999, their popmeistery was theoretical indeed, and by 2000 Atlantic had dumped them. They financed Welcome Interstate Managers with TV-scoring money. Though it yielded "Stacy's Mom," a video hit that reached 21 in the Hot 100, this salacious tale of a young guy lusting after his girlfriend's mother went higher on Billboard's "Adult" charts. Wonder why.

Another reason Out-of-State Plates is well-timed is that Welcome Interstate Managers is a career album--too inspired to improve on. The compilation is a stopgap that gives them time to see what options history throws their way, and "Maureen" and "The Girl I Can't Forget" suggest a possible direction--love songs. With an edge, of course. Not counting "Stacy's Mom" (which you shouldn't), Welcome Interstate Managers offers only "No Better Place," "Hey Julie," and the tender minute-long closer "Yours and Mine" in this vein. And none of these qualifies as unequivocally as such barbed keepers preserved here as 1997's "I Want You Around" ("I can't bear to be alone/With me"), 1997's "Kid Gloves" ("Now that her soft touch is gone"), or 2004's "Baby, I've Changed" ("I'll let you listen to the blues"), not to mention the principled niceness of "Places" (1997) and "I Know You Well" (1999), or of "Trains and Boats and Planes" and ". . . Baby One More Time." On this collection, what's rare is cutting social portraiture like the drugs-going-nowhere "Elevator Up" and the cheap career move "California Sex Lawyer." Anybody who thinks that Fountains of Wayne are just another slick pop band better tell us who their compeers are.

After giving too much time to competing tunecrafters and forgetting Schlesinger's dreamy side project Ivy every time I wake up, I've learned two things. First is that Fountains of Wayne are not only exceptionally clever melodists, they also understand rhythm sections--Welcome Interstate Managers rocks, and the newer songs rock more. Second is that hook fiends can come in from the cold. No longer do arch young bands of small countercultural loyalty grapple their way into 15 weeks of fame by tweaking five notes from somewhere you can't quite recall. Boy groups behind us, we've attained the American Idol era, when heatseekers make no attempt to conceal their crassness because crassness itself is now a selling point. Until the revolution comes, Fountains of Wayne will qualify as full-fledged art heroes. Two discs of outtakes is the least they deserve.

Village Voice, July 12, 2005