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Music Review: Fountains of Wayne – Traffic and Weather

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Two men in a diner who “look quite a bit like Carl Reiner.” A “late ‘92 baby blue Subaru” with a “lime green plasma screen television.” “Highway hotels and their air-conditioned cable-ready cold padded cells.” Michael and Heather at the Lost and Found, forever “looking for luggage that’s soft and brown.” The girlfriend caught “sharing a hot dog with mustard after work with that same old polyester jerk…”

…Stay tuned for more. With Traffic and Weather, manic pop thrill-meisters Fountains of Wayne continue their dependable track-by-track record of pure pop for now people, with more witty vignettes and incisive character studies set to hook-filled pop-rock delirium. But as solidly infectious and consistently spirited as the album is, it doesn’t quite have anything as sublimely soaring as “Amity Gardens,” or as sublimely poignant as “Troubled Times,” both from the group’s finest album, Utopia Parkway. Nor — while I'm mining gems from that 1999 album — are the bounciest songs on Traffic as bouncy as “Red Dragon Tattoo,” or the punchiest as punchy as “Denise.”

So if the new release offers no drastic departures and sustains the holding-pattern delights of 1993’s Welcome Interstate Managers and “Stacy’s Mom,” it still has enough staying power in its pleasures to make you forget there’s little gravitas in the grooves. That doesn’t mean the fun is all facile and the themes cartoonish, however. For every enjoyable song — about, say, “Channel Six news team” romance (“Traffic and Weather“), or of the souped-up events that transpire after “I bought a car off a couple o' ladies way upstate / Took off the Greenpeace sticker and the New Hampshire plates” (“’92 Subaru”) — songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood pile on more with storylines and sympathetic characters that draw you further in.

Some Beach Boys-style harmonies help make “This Better Be Good” a stand-out track that mightily amuses, but you’re also gonna want to stick around to see what happens after the opening sets up a little trouble in relationship paradise that's less than fun, fun, fun: 

    I saw you holding hands
    With some guy wearing light blue Dockers pants
    And I thought that I might just give you a chance to explain
    What the hell is in your brain
    You know you pretend you're going to Sea Bright
    For the long weekend but something don't seem right
    And your best friend Renee keeps on saying she saw you at the Gap with somebody in a baseball cap.

    And you know
    This better be good
    This better be good…

In addition to such lyrical and vocal overtures and cues, some subtly clever musical shorthand seems also to be at the ready to point the way. In “Yolanda Hayes,” a tale about yearned-for love at the DMV between a lad in an everlasting line and the clerk behind window B, the Beatlesesque flourishes may be more than flukes or obvious and oft-used pop-rock touchstones. The punctuating guitar lines that closely recall the encouraging “Getting Better,” and horns that evoke the expectant hopes of “Got To Get You Into My Life,” allude to a certain and optimistic destiny.

Not all is for the best, however, as FOW's sense of perversity crops up from time to time. “New Routine” sets in motion the thematic promise that the more things change, the more “They tell each other jokes that they both know that they both know / They talk about real estate, prostates, Costco.”

And in “Someone to Love,” parallel stories tell the tale of two lonely people, and the times when “a date with the Late Show is all that you've got.” Seth Shapiro goes home after work and “Puts Coldplay on, pours a glass of wine / And curls up with a book about organized crime.” For Beth Mackenzie, “It's Thursday night she should be out on the scene / But she's sitting at home watching The King of Queens.” But despite the aching refrain again and again that “you're not the only one who's lonely” — which might suggest a refuting meeting of the hearts and minds when Seth and Beth inevitably encounter each other — fate has a funny way of playing tricks:

    Seth Shapiro is trying in vain
    To hail a taxi in the morning in the pouring rain
    Beth Mackenzie sees one just up ahead
    She cuts in front of him and leaves him for dead…

Then again, though happy occurrences abound here and there throughout the album, there may have been more dire circumstances in store for Seth anywhere along the line, egged-on by FOW’s universal everyman verities. The beleaguered boy may have, in the course of being “Strapped for Cash,” encountered “Six body-builders [who’ve] pulled up in a Pinto / Next thing I know they’re coming through the window.” Or be caught dangerously cutting a rug with “Revolving Dora” in “her rotating world.”

And though the “nine-hour drive from me to you / South on I-95” may sound nobly romantic and self-sacrificing, second thoughts must be lurking as an inkling becomes an issue: Long distance love at today’s gas prices?

If that's the case, then at least stay tuned to traffic and weather, upper and lower case, and be sure to take your Fountains of Wayne CDs – that’ll make it not just bearable, but so much more pleasurable, too. 

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch