At midlife, pop-rock jesters live set reveals deeper feeling
By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
(Editor s note: Fountains of Wayne s grown-up take on power pop has always layered melancholy beneath its wit. At the band's hometown gig in a week punctuated by debt-ceiling brinksmanship and global market meltdowns, that melancholy seemed especially vivid to veteran critic Christgau.)
Chris Collingwood doesn't have a rock 'n' roll voice. Melding limp and sarcastic, it's high without a hint of gospel falsetto, and you can't call it weedy only because there's no outdoors in it. Together with fellow Williams grad and Fountains of Wayne partner Adam Schlesinger, Collingwood has been writing songs for this voice since 1996. They're so skillfully calculated that theoretical country singer Robbie Fulks went to the bother of replicating Collingwood's delivery on "Fountains of Wayne Hotline," in which a songwriter gets verse and bridge advice from FOW's 900-number gremlins. A laff and a half - check it out.
Just don't then conclude that Fulks, who attended Columbia himself, wins the sincerity contest. From the start - try the debut's painful "She's Got a Problem" or compassionate "Sick Day" - Fountains of Wayne have camouflaged something almost as suspect behind Collingwood's wimpy front: tenderness. And at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom on Aug. 3, that tenderness was available to anyone ready to believe it was there, which obviously included most of a full house.
It might have been the P.A., or where I was standing, or the horns they'd dispensed with since I saw them in 2007. But I was struck by how clear the words were at this gig, which is never a given even with bands who care about lyrics - cf. the Old 97's, the Drive-By Truckers. This clarity was partly accomplished by sticking to medium-tempo staples at the expense of rocking crowd-pleasers like the opening "Little Red Light," where Collingwood's voice gets raspier - making it harder to register that, with a locale change, this tale of an exurban commuter wishing his departed helpmate would leave a message could be a breakup song hooked up for Jason Aldean on Music Row. And though I didn't love everything they played - I've never gotten "The Valley of Malls," which came next - their gremlins kept me occupied until we got to words that touched me again.
The first third of the set was long on the kind of material that leads people who don't like Collingwood's voice to pigeonhole Fountains of Wayne as satirists. But that's a fair description only of the exquisite "Richie and Ruben," from their new Sky Full of Holes album, "a song about two dopes," as Collingwood put it, that begins, "They opened up a bar called Living Hell." On "Someone to Love," about two lonely people a little too competitive to hook up, or "The Summer Place," where "the memories last a lifetime" and they're not good, Collingwood felt bad for these marginally affluent sufferers - you could hear the ache in his whine.
Fountains of Wayne write songs so contemporary that they date fast. The circa-2003 digital phone in "Little Red Light," for instance, is already outmoded technology. But that can be a positive, because it means their songs are situated in history. And at the Bowery I realized that the slightly self- pitying dysfunctionalities they pinpoint had more comedy potential in an economy roomier than the one we've got now. "Barbara H.," "Denise," "Fire in the Canyon," "Radiation Vibe," "Hackensack" - that's a lot of songs about well-differentiated nice guys with problems pining for differently-abled or - disabled young women. But now you hear them and say to yourself, "That's the least of it, pal." And the care Collingwood put into the singing made his characters' larger dilemma more poignant.
Unbeknownst to their doubters, Fountains of Wayne write real love songs, too. On one of the perkiest, "Hey Julie," Schlesinger rounded up four audience members to play percussion, three of them women - the boy-girl ratio in FOW's audience is better than most. Rhythmically, let's say the four held their own. But what was more impressive is that without mikes they sang along as loud as they could. They sang along about the creep with the bad toupee who orders the narrator around all day. And they sang along about how Julie helps him make it through. No satire whatsoever, I swear.
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. The winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship who has published five books based on his journalism, Christgau maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.