Thursday, April 05, 2007

144. Fountains Of Wayne: Traffic And Weather (2007)

Fountains Of Wayne have taken some unexpected lumps lately. The former critical darlings' 4th release, Traffic And Weather, has been met with some harsh assessments, especially from Paste and Pitchfork.

Paste writer Marc Hirsh claims that the band has run out of steam. Pitchfork reviewer Matt LeMay concludes that the album finds FOW "treading water in the worst possible way." Both of them give the Traffic And Weather one of the most insulting comments an album can recieve, that it's mediocre and boring.

But is it true?

After a few listens, carefully aware of his own bias, this long-time diehard Fountains fan is happy to say no, it isn't true at all. Of course, that leads to another question: What's wrong with Marc and Matt?

I've prepared a list to try to suss out their problem.

1) They hate Fountains Of Wayne and always have.
Right off we get Marc out of the way, because this is obviously his issue. Read how he begins the second sentence of his review: "Still writing songs as if the goal was simply to get from rhyme to rhyme, they remain far too impressed with their own cleverness..." Lyrical judgements aside, just look at his use of the words "still" and "remain." That says it all. Listen, Mr.Hirsh, if you don't like a band don't agree to review their record. Save us the trouble.

Matt LeMay is not so easy to peg. He claims to have enjoyed Fountains Of Wayne in the past, especially their first album. Which leads us to...

2) The critic thinks the past is always better than the present.
It's a patented jackass rock snob move to claim an artist's new album is not as good as their first. But let's give Mr.LeMay the benefit of the doubt an assume he did at one time hold genuine affection for the band.

3) The critic wants to punish Fountains Of Wayne having success.
Now we're getting somewhere. Ohh, the indie hipster guys hate it when you have a hit, get a video in rotation and appear on a Now! compilation. It makes them seethe.

Matt's problem mainly seems to be Stacy's Mom, which he harps on for a paragraph, claiming that its success pushed Fountains Of Wayne into a formulaic, derivative songwriting approach that values style over substance. He says the song's verses were "tossed-off filler" (which is kind of a mixed metaphor, but anyway). Um, what?
Sidebar on Stacy's Mom: The first time I heard this song on the radio I was esctatic. I was already a fan of the band, and the fact that their new song was SO good just thrilled me. It has an undeniable Cars vibe without being a rip-off. The chorus is simply killer. And the verses tell a story, with details like "since your dad walked out..." painting a precise picture. Not to mention the psychological implications of this deluded boy narrator and Stacy, who may or may not have her own crush.
Okay, so Fountains Of Wayne had a hit. They deserved it. After 7 years of toil, one of the band's songs was embraced by the public! This used to be how it worked, and how it sporadically still does. Why begrudge them that? It's not as if they capitalized on it in a soulless way. They just rode the wave and went back into relative obscurity, where good power pop bands belong.

4) The critic has personal problems and is not a happy person
I'll give him this one. Tough times can affect every aspect of your life, even enjoyment of pop music. I hope you work it out, man.

Okay, that solved, let's talk about the album itself.

First off, this is a solid Fountains Of Wayne record. If you liked their first three, then you'll like this. That's basic. Since the beginning Adam and Chris have been storytellers in the Billy Joel vein (legend has it that they performed in an all-Joel covers band together, and both this album and 2003's Welcome Interstate Managers have contained small musical tributes to the piano man). That continues here. And the band make hook and harmony filled pop songs reminiscent of Cheap Trick and The Cars, with a bit of country rock thrown in sporadically. Still true.

Even the good reviews of Traffic And Weather have thrown out words like snark and smirk, all claiming the band is having a laugh at its own creations. I don't understand this at all. The Blender review even summarizes its review thusly: "Stacy's Mom guys snicker at Coldplay fans." Let's look at how the Coldplay reference is made: In the dancey Someone To Love one of the lonely main characters "puts Coldplay on, pours a glass of wine, curls up with a book about organized crime." If there's judgement in that, I'm hard pressed to find it. If the listener hears a judgment, maybe its his or her own, because Adam and Chris unfailingly paint their characters with detail, empathy and care.

As on Red Dragon Tattoo, Hackensack, Marureen and countless other past Fountains Of Wayne songs, the characters in Traffic And Weather are searching for something to make their lives better. The narrator of Yolonda Hayes just wants a date with a comely DMV worker. The waitress in New Routine decides to travel and finds herself still wanting after many sojurns. In I-95 the narrator just wants to get home to his long-distance baby. Sure, some of the characters may be slightly self-deluded, but raise your hand if you have at least one self-deluded person in your life. Now hands down.

The album is not perfect. I have two problems. One is the rightly-derided Planet Of Weed, which is neither clever nor compelling. But it is mercifully short, and continues the band's odd fascination with stoners (see Go, Hippie and Peace And Love for further details). My other problem with the record is that they didn't tribute the Talking Heads by calling it More Songs About Traffic And Weather. Maybe that's implied.

Fountains Of Wayne were never going to save the record industry or please every fickle indie rock hipster, but I'll bet there won't be too many pop albums released this year that are as enjoyable as this one.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: Fire In The Canyon
Fave Line: "Ohh, we belong together, like traffic and weather."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

In Brief

139. Kaiser Chiefs: Yours Truly, Angry Mob (2007)

Ignore the ass-backwards review on Pitchfork and enjoy zippy XTC-derived pop from a group that has improved on its exciting but uneven debut. Ruby is joy and fear all mixed together, Heat Dies Down is as good of a meet-then-break-up-messily song as you could ask for, and the thrilling Everything Is Average Nowadays is anything but. On album closer Retirement lead singer Ricky Wilson claims, "I want to retire" but let's hope it doesn't happen anytime soon. Grade: A



140. The Broken West: I Can't Go On, I'll Go On (2007)

Mining the same indie power pop territory as The New Pornographers is a good approach, and Los Angeles' The Broken West do it well, even without Neko Case's gorgeous voice. The album never quite acheives full lift-off, but nevertheless cruises at a smooth, enjoyable altitude. Check out Brass Ring or Abagail. Grade: B




141. Alexa Ray Joel: Sketches (2006)

Billy and Christie's little girl, who was previously only known in pop music for being named after a boat which was featured in a song (The Downeaster Alexa), is trying her hand at being a singer songwriter. The results on her debut EP are promising if not spectacular. The good news is that she's got talent as a performer (especially evident on a cover of Neil Young's Don't Let It Bring You Down) and as a writer (see the excellent Now It's Gone). Grade: B



142. Elliott Yamin: Elliott Yamin (2007)

The most likable American Idol contestent since Kelly Clarkson makes his white soul debut. As much as I'd like to report otherwise, this is still an American Idol album, which means it has its share of cringeworthy ballads (One Word), an out-of-comfort-zone embarassment (Alright) and an obligitory cover (a too-showy version of his staple A Song For You). Even so, if Elliott charmed you on the show you'll embrace the hand-clappy Movin' On, the gospel-y Find A Way and the Stevie Wonder-evoking Free. Grade: B-



143. Robbers On High Street: The Fatalist & Friends (2006)

On this cheaply-priced ($0.99!) EP, the Robbers offer a sassy and groovy preview of their upcoming album. Judging by the chugging The Fatalist and jabbing Married Young, the band is more Spoonish than ever. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Most surprising and electrifying is a loose-limbed cover of Paul McCartney's little-known Monkberry Moon Delight. A good appetizer. Grade: A-