Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers

I was hoping that this long-awaited (at least by fans) release would be my Album of the Year. Compared to all the crap I’ve had to review for Splendid, it’s frighteningly good, and even better than 1999’s great Utopia Parkway. This time around, Fountains of Wayne smirk slightly less and refine all the components (hooks, melodies, character sketches, harmonies, wordplay) that make them an exceptional posse of power-poppers. Subject-wise, they’re also expanding their repertoire, moving beyond the everyday thrills and trials of growing up and coming of age in suburbia. The songs are just as miniaturist, although now they touch on more adult issues—work, sustained courtship, even (gasp!) marriage—but they haven’t abandoned obsessions of yore, as one song (“Stacy’s Mom”) is about falling in lust with your girlfriend’s mother and another (“Fire Island”) glows with nostalgia of having the house to yourself and your friends while the parents are on vacation, being old enough to be left unsupervised.

The first four songs make up the strongest string of album tracks I’ve heard in ages. “Mexican Wine” combines “Penny Lane” snappiness with “Strawberry Fields Forever” orchestral flourishes and a sly verse that’s surely been already quoted elsewhere: “I used to fly for American Airlines / then I got fired for reading High Times.” “Bright Future In Sales” is a cool, alternate universe answer to “Hip To Be Square” with an outtasite guitar riff and lots of “yeah, yeah’s”. “Stacy’s Mom” plays as blatant (and perfectly-tuned) tribute to The Cars as Utopia Parkway’s “Red Dragon Tattoo” did to Wings; it’s also as creepy as it is catchy. And “Hackensack” is the album’s mid-tempo gem, as wonderfully wistful and longing as a lost summer day.

Regarding the next eight songs, few are quite as striking as the preceding four (save for big, beautifully regret-filled ballad, “All Kinds of Time”), but there isn’t a weak one in the bunch. “No Better Place” reprises the leaving town theme of “Hackensack” and is the kind of track you wish Oasis were still capable of churning out. “Winter Valley Song” jangles and sighs like a gentle, idyllic snowfall, and “Little Red Light” is the brand of bright and loud power pop these guys do effortlessly. The weary office drone narrator of the nimble, acoustic “Hey Julie” could be the guy of “Bright Future In Sales” a few years down the line. Although lyrically slight, “Halley’s Waitress” and “Hung Up On You” are sweet, successful takes on, respectively, orchestral ‘70s soul and bar-band country. The yearning, lovely “Fire Island” out-folds Ben Folds in its McCartney-esque aura (and has a nice Bacharachian horn solo). You never want it to end.

But it does. I don’t how to begin to describe the inanity of the next track, “Peace and Love”. It’s either satirizing hippies and Phish-heads, or (yuck) aping them. Given this band’s track record, I’m leaning towards the former, but the song’s still lame either way, and the record never recovers. “Bought For A Song” is just OK, but could’ve been a niftier B-side. “Super Collider” has its charms, but just isn’t as inspired an Oasis tribute as “No Better Place”, and the minute-long closer, “Yours and Mine” wants to be as neat of a capper as “Her Majesty” but registers as a song even less. So, if you stop your CD player after “Fire Island”, you have yourself a remarkably wicked-strong set that could be the band’s masterwork. This leaves us with a most perplexing question: Are Fountains of Wayne savvier for putting their weakest songs at the end, or misguided for including them at all?