In late 2003, Fountains of Wayne received a flattering, but rather puzzling, “Best New Artist” Grammy nomination (one of two categories in which they were named that year). This certainly made long-time fans chuckle; those in the know knew that Welcome Interstate Managers, the album that spawned the ubiquitous “Stacy’s Mom” and topped critics’ polls everywhere, was actually the New York-based group’s third collection of melodic pop/rock gems. And far from being a flash in the pan, the quartet was considered by many to be — in the words of Robert Christgau — “peerless” and “true art heroes”, or as Entertainment Weekly called them, “America’s greatest extant rock and roll band.” But FOW couldn’t help enjoying the new-found attention as they began headlining bigger venues, topping charts on MTV and VH1, and appearing on a “Now That’s What I Call Music” compilation CD next to the likes of Jay-Z, Nickelback and Black Eyed Peas.
Now, after a long silence broken only by occasional snoring and the release of the 2005 b-side compilation Out-Of-State Plates (which CNN called “better than 95% of most bands’ official releases”), Fountains of Wayne return with a brand new 14-song set, Traffic and Weather, which further demonstrates the musical range, wit, and eye for narrative detail that have become their trademarks. The new record finds the band continuing to reimagine early 60′s jangle, late 60′s psychedelia, 70′s classic rock, 80′s New Wave, 90′s alt-rock, and contemporary pop in their own inimitable style — this time against an even richer, more varied sonic backdrop of lush harmony vocal stacks, staccato horn blasts, pulsating analog keyboards, slinky bass lines, and deep grooves. There’s even some banjo in there somewhere, just in case. And, of course, lots of guitars…chiming, crunching, strumming, and occasionally twanging.
A new, indelible cast of characters is inducted into the FOW pantheon of stars on Traffic and Weather: Yolanda Hayes, a sullen object of affection behind the glass at the Department Of Motor Vehicles; Seth Shapiro and Beth Mackenzie, two lonely, hardworking New Yorkers who cross paths – sort of – in “Someone To Love” (which features Hole/Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur singing backing vocals); the exhausted couple in “Michael and Heather At The Baggage Claim”, dragging themselves onto an airport shuttle bus after a long trip; newscasters in heat in the album’s title track, and many others. Hapless protagonists like the suspicious boyfriend of “This Better Be Good” and the hit-man target in “Strapped For Cash” are also classic Fountains of Wayne narrators.
Travel and transportation continue to figure heavily in the on-the-go world of FOW. The guy who buys himself a “’92 Subaru” is convinced that the right pimped-out ride is all he needs to get the girl; in the Beatlesque “i-95″ a driver explores a rest area gift shop late at night, on the way to visit his loved one; we hear of “an eerie kind of sadness on the highway today” in the Gram Parsons-tinged “Fire In The Canyon” (featuring backing vocals by the Candy Butchers’ Mike Viola, who was the voice of “That Thing You Do”). The misery of sitting in coach on a delayed flight is examined in the wistful waltz “Seatbacks And Traytables” (which contains a guest appearance on guitar by James Iha). And in the semi-epic “New Routine”, we follow a series of characters who each randomly pick a new place to live, only to discover someone else there who can’t wait to move away.
Former schoolmates Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood formed Fountains of Wayne — named after a semi-legendary statuary and garden furniture store in Wayne, NJ — in 1996 as a vehicle for their mutual love of pop songcraft, after having played together in a series of precursor bands with even more ungainly names. They enlisted ex-Posies drummer Brian Young and lead guitarist Jody Porter, formerly of The Belltower, just before the release of their self-titled debut album, which had been recorded largely as a duo. The band’s line-up has remained constant ever since. Their second album, 1999′s widely-heralded Utopia Parkway, featured all four members in the recording studio, as did 2003′s breakthrough Welcome Interstate Managers. By now, the band has developed a sixth sense for arranging Schlesinger and Collingwood’s songs, and Young’s muscular backbeat and Porter’s endlessly inventive riffs and countermelodies are integral parts of the FOW sound. And while the records have gotten progressively more detailed and nuanced, FOW live remains a lean, loud guitar band with a decade’s worth of singalong faves to pick from.
Traffic and Weather, which was produced by Schlesinger and mixed by Michael Brauer (Coldplay, Paul McCartney) and longtime FOW collaborator John Holbrook (Elton John, Todd Rundgren, Brian Setzer), will be released by Virgin Records worldwide. The band will tour throughout the year in support of the record, including appearances at the Coachella and Bonaroo festivals, with more festival appearances and tour dates to be announced shortly. Videos for several songs from the new album, none of which will feature Rachel Hunter writhing around in lingerie (as of presstime), are in the planning stages.
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