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?


Documentary Roundup: Spellbound, Gigantic, Standing In The Shadows of Motown

Is it just a coincidence, or have documentaries enjoyed resurgence in popularity since Bowling For Columbine? I look through the film listings, and all that piques my interest lately are non-fiction offerings. I’ve seen three of ‘em in the last week, and there are so many more on my list: Capturing The Friedmans, Stone Reader, Cinemania, the forthcoming Fellini: I’m A Born Liar

Spellbound has ascended into the top twenty on recent box office tallies, a rarity for a documentary. Of course, it helps that the subject—eight 12-to-14-year-olds (out of a total of 250) preparing for and competing in the national spelling bee championship—has a special, far-reaching appeal. The film’s first half profiles the kids one by one. Their ethnicities, social-economical backgrounds and personality quirks form a richly diverse composite akin to the subjects Michael Apted gathered for his long-running Up documentary series. At one end of the spectrum is Angela, a gawky small town Texas girl born of migrant Mexican parents and Ashley, an independent but still pretty vulnerable African American girl from a Washington, DC housing project. At the other end, there’s Neil, an affluent Indian-American from coastal Orange County whose religious father hires a barrage of foreign language tutors to ensure his son’s victory, and Emily, a New Haven resident who casually talks of bringing the family’s au pair to the competition.

First time director Jeffrey Blitz allows us to get to know each child, and we see their homes, learn about their hobbies, witness their various means of preparation and study, and watch clips from the regional competitions they won. He makes all eight subjects seem worthy of our attention, from Harry, whose jittery, spazzy energy (and unforgettable facial distortions) blatantly command it, to small town Missouri resident Ted, whose humility and lack of pretension single him out more subtly. The kids’ family members are often just as impressionable, particularly April’s more-than-a-bit daffy but lovable mother and Ashley’s proud and outspoken single mom. No one comes off as a stereotype, either.

This individual introduction and build-up is crucial to the film’s second half, which finds the eight children competing against each other in the finals in DC. Because you’ve gotten to know the kids so well, you’re on the edge of your seat every time each one gets a new word to spell. You can practically feel their concentration, their anxiety, their surprise and elation at getting a word right, their despair and disappointment at hearing the dreaded bell that eliminates them from the stage. The film builds awesomely with the intensity of a sporting match (which, in their cerebral way, spelling bees are). It’s a fun movie, but also an important one—it paints a multifaceted, provocative, and informative portrait of the country through a specific cross-section of American youth. They all face different struggles but they're all singularly united by a common interest and challenge.


Flood, the third album by alternative/absurdist duo They Might Be Giants nearly changed my life when I first heard it in 1993. I had dismissed the Johns all through high school; they were too weird and nerdy for my tastes (though in retrospect I was never too nerdy for them), a band that only the AV club and drama students could love. But, after borrowing a dubbed tape of Flood from someone, I saw the (night) light. I simply succumbed to one clever, quirky, catchy oddity after another, re-playing “Birdhouse In Your Soul” until I knew every single word by heart. I rushed out and bought all their albums, saw them perform live twice, felt a little put off and underwhelmed at their burgeoning full band sound, and gradually lost interest. I still listen to them occasionally, and I enjoy their recent efforts much more than their mid-90’s dreck--the overlong, uninspired John Henry lowered the band’s stock for many older fans.

Gigantic, AJ Schnack’s lovingly assembled documentary about the duo, will appeal to everyone who ever bought an loved a TMBG record. To everyone else, it may seem like the fluffiest, most irrelevant music film ever. It doesn’t have the same “band’s place in the music industry” appeal and enthrallment of the Wilco film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (although it touches upon problems TMBG faced when they signed to Elektra); nor does it possess the historical significance of a film like Standing In The Shadows of Motown. Instead, it simply tries to be the ultimate fan doc, and it very nearly succeeds. If you’ve ever hummed “Particle Man” in the shower to yourself, you’ll love all the rare archival footage (especially the early videos and the band performing “Birdhouse” with the Doc Severinsen Orchestra (!) on The Tonight Show (!)) and the visit to John Flansburgh’s Brooklyn apartment, home of the infamous, brilliant Dial-A-Song recording service.

Even non-fans may get a kick out of these things, but most of Gigantic gives new oomph to the word self-indulgent. Not only is it overlong, much of the recent performance footage (with the full “band of Dans”) doesn’t do the Johns any favors--you may disagree if you prefer the full band to the old tape-playlet enhanced shows. Just compare the recent, leaden stage rendition of “Don’t Lets Start” to the spry, energetic original video, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. The interview subjects also vary wildly; for every Syd Straw appearance (so bullshit-free but also so engagingly lost in herself that she steals the show), there’s a painfully long Sarah Vowell clip. She usually comes off well in her writing and This American Life pieces, but when given to oral improvisation, man, does she ever excel in pointless meandering babble.

Still, the Johns are such likable guys, and their achievement as unlikely pop stars so fascinating that Gigantic is a hard film not to like, though it’s often hard to love. You’ll leave it entertained, but unless you’re a die-hard fan, you’ll feel more than a little exhausted.


I resisted Standing In the Shadows of Motown when it premiered to rave reviews last year; catching up with it on video, I can see why it garnered so much praise. Like Spellbound, it’s one hell of an entertaining film. It profiles The Funk Brothers, a collective of (mostly black) Detroit musicians who played on many classic Motown hits from 1959 to the early ‘70s. It tells their story not so much through archival footage and old photos, but through a reunion of sorts of the surviving members. They visit the old Berry Gordy basement studios, tell stories about themselves and the collective’s deceased members (especially genius bassist James Jamerson), and perform old chestnuts on stage accompanied by the likes of modern vocalists like Gerald Levert, Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, and Meshell Ndegeocello. It suitably gives the long-ignored musicians their due, the recent stage footage is pretty decent (not mere oldies show) and most of the Brothers are genial, charismatic subjects. It doesn’t quite have the same thrill of Spellbound, for instance; it’s pretty standard PBS-esque documentary fare, and you won’t leave it feeling transformed. But it’s certainly as solid as the rhythm tracks these guys put down all those years ago for the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and so on.


Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary

Until recently, only a very particular breed of film geek and devotees of the avant-garde, silent cinema, and the midnight movie circuit had ever heard of Winnipeg-based filmmaker Guy Maddin. He visited my experimental film class at BU five years ago (while in town for a retrospective of his work at the MFA) and showed his 1992 feature, Careful, a cautionary fable about an isolated, way Northern town where the slightest hint of noise would trigger a massive avalanche upon the order of Pompeii. It was his first film in color, although not full color (only two tints were used in every frame). The quirky dialogue was like nothing I’d ever heard, perhaps because it translated from English to Icelandic and back to English again.

In 2000, Maddin wowed many with a short he made for the Toronto International Film Festival called The Heart of The World. A homage to silent Russian and German Expressionist cinema (particularly the montage-centric work of Sergei Eisenstein), it careens at a breakneck pace, condensing enough characters, subplots, red herrings and plot twists to fill an epic into six frenzied minutes. Like much of Maddin’s work, it fixates on the effects and aesthetics of pre-sound cinema, only filtered through seventy-plus years of technological and artistic advancements. The basis for Maddin’s work may lie in another time, but he brings a decidedly modern sensibility to it in his rapid editing, home-bred surrealism, and a playfulness that renders it all unexpectedly, delightfully accessible.

Still, Maddin’s stuff is weird enough that he’ll likely never attract an audience that’s larger than micro-art house circuit-sized. This inevitably makes it difficult for him to find funding, so his latest feature is his fifth overall (in 15 years) and his first since 1997’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (which itself featured Shelly Duvall and Frank Gorshin!). Invited by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to film its stage production of Bram Stoker’s oft-told, oft-filmed horror tale, Maddin took his footage and ran wild with it, piling on the circa-1925 effects (iris-ins and outs, intertitles, superimpositions, one-color screen-tints) and focusing very little on the choreography (not entirely leaving it out), but keeping (and emphasizing) the production’s classical score. The results are like watching Nosferatu as a hallucinatory silent musical (is that an oxymoron?) with a more traditional screen vampire (the suave, striking Zhang Wei-Qiang) in place of a hideous creature like Max Schreck.

Actually, the Count gets comparably little screen time in this version; the real central figure here is Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle, as luminous and ghostly as any Maddin heroine). The production begins with and focuses on the middle of the tale as Dracula seduces Lucy (the journey of Jonathan Harker and his encounter with the Count appears midway through the film in a swift, truncated series of flashbacks). From there, plenty of melodramatic heartbreak and elegant, romantic dancing ensues. Maddin refashions the ballet to his taste so much that it renders the original production nearly unrecognizable. The Dracula legend and all its familiar references are present (from blood-sucking to stake-driving), but Maddin’s own little additions (like the FLESHPOTS! that seduce an imprisoned Harker at Dracula’s castle) and rearrangements make it all seem like you haven’t seen this story before (you certainly haven’t heard it told like this).

It’s difficult to sustain such brilliance for even 75 minutes, which is why The Heart of The World remains Maddin’s penultimate work. But with that shining exception, he’s rarely been as inspired or poetic or complete or as (and this is the key) moving as he is here. Maddin’s Dracula is the rare film that’s as innovative as it is seductive.


Not counting “Airplane”, I haven’t watched a movie from beginning to end since “Blue Car” on Memorial Day. I guess moving and movies don’t mix that well. However, I have been listening to a lot of new music. For Splendid next week, I’ll review Natacha Atlas (who did a mesmerizing version of “I Put A Spell On You” that appeared in the film “Divine Intervention”), Allday Afternoon (painfully mediocre Chapel Hill post-Hootie band) and The Boxing Lesson, a somewhat pretentious but intriguing brit-influenced Californian combo.

I’m also having the most trouble making a sound clip for the Jayhawks CD I reviewed this week. It’s a tad scratched, and my CD-Rom drive won’t play it (at least without it skipping madly). So, I tried taking it in to CD Spins, because they claim they repair CDs. Well, in truth, they send it to a warehouse and the whole damn process takes two weeks. At least I found a copy of DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing”, which I bought without hearing a single track. I was hoping for the spiritual forerunner of the Avalanches, and that’s about right, only more ambient and chilled (and a little quirkier).

I also just listened to Lucinda William’s latest, “World Without Tears”, all the way through. I still haven’t fully digested her last one, “Essence”, but it’s on loan from Tom, so I wanted to hear it. It’s a demanding record, and I need to hear it a few more times. It’s livelier than “Essence”, at least, but better? That I can’t say yet.

Looking forward to eventually getting new records from Fountains of Wayne, The Pernice Brothers, and maybe Liz Phair. Her long awaited new album sounds both interesting and frightening. I’ve already read about comparisons to Sheryl Crow (Phair’s softer work isn’t that far off from Crow’s edgier stuff anyway) and Avril Lavinge (ick). Hmm, maybe I should just save my money for the Punch-Drunk Love DVD…