Tuesday, April 10, 2007

This Better Be Good

God, I hate it when a band I adore releases a weak record. It literally pains me. But that's what my beloved Fountains of Wayne have just done with their new one, Traffic and Weather.

Since their self-titled debut in 1996, FOW have consistently turned out some of the smartest and most infectious pop music around. Their first three records are absolute gems, bursting with killer melodies, keen character sketches, wry humor, and production and arrangements that frequently pay tribute to the various pop genres, from The Beatles to glam, and from late-70s new wave to the classic Nashville sound. The songwriting duo of Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, in addition to knowing their way around a great tune, have a particular gift for making the ordinary seem poignant in their lyrics, for making the most mundane moments in life seem weighted with beauty, significance and meaning. Through it all, they haven't made a single misstep.

Until now, that is. Because Traffic and Weather is a train-wreck of a record, and so deeply flawed that I can scarcely believe it was made by the same band I've known and admired for 11 years.

Things start well enough, I suppose, with "Someone To Love," the tale of two lonely homebodies in the big city, set to a driving dance beat. It's not a bad song, but it's also nothing FOW haven't essentially done before, and a lot better. And while sly pop culture references are a common FOW device, usually to add a nuance of telling, funny detail to a character, the references to Coldplay and The King of Queens feel forced and gratuitous here. Unfortunately, things quickly get worse. Much worse. The second track, "92 Subaru" -- the second f*cking track on a Fountains of Wayne record! -- is just unimaginative, cliched and lame. It literally sounds like a clumsy parody of a FOW song, lacking any of the clever wit or charm of their previous work.

And the clunkers keep on coming, including the tedious title track. In fact, with the exception of "Yolanda Hayes" (which has a nifty melody and Revolver-like arrangement, even if the subject -- a guy with a crush on the girl behind the counter at the DMV -- again borders on tired schtick), and "I-95" (which is earnest and romantic, but at the same time flirts with one-too-many lines about the Gun 'N'Roses albums and Barney DVDs on offer at a truck stop), most of the remaining tracks on Traffic and Weather are b-side material, at best, by any prior measure of this band. (2005's 2-disc collection of FOW b-sides and unreleased songs, Out-Of-State Plates, is actually a far more consistent and enjoyable listen than this mess.) And the last 4 cuts are just plain sub-par, with the insipid "Planet of Weed," in particular -- all cheesy wah-wah guitar and hackneyed lines about how pot smokers crave Doritos -- qualifying as an outright embarrassment, the absolute nadir of FOW's output.

If Traffic and Weather delivers even one "goosebump moment," it's on "Michael and Heather At The Baggage Claim" (which we previewed here a few weeks back), a lovely, touching little tune about a young couple struggling to get out of the airport after a long, exhausting journey. It's perhaps the only one of the 14 tracks on this regrettable outing that is entirely worthy of these immensely talented songwriters. (Maybe because it's the only one they deliver straight, and with sincerity, rather than straining to make a cute joke about an office drone wearing Dockers or old people shopping at Costco.)

I just hope and pray that Traffic and Weather is an aberration, and not a sign that something perpetually intelligent and wonderful has finally run its course. Fountains of Wayne has been too good a band, for too long, to bow out on a bum note like this.

MP3: Fountains of Wayne - "Someone To Love" from Traffic and Weather