x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The new Fountains of Wayne album goes beyond novelty

Mature and accomplished, Fountains of Wayne's latest reveals the talent behind the pop.

The band Fountains of Wayne at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
The band Fountains of Wayne at the 46th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

Fountains of Wayne
Sky Full of Holes
(Yep Roc/Loginx)
****

Whether you choose to gleefully buy in or watch disapprovingly from afar, a novelty song usually can't be ignored. From Aqua's Barbie Girl to Wheatus's Teenage Dirtbag, the signifiers are always the same: a group or artist who seem to have appeared overnight, hawking a perfectly formed three-minute piece of kitsch, with the help of a suspiciously expensive-looking music video.

While such songs are busy clogging up the airwaves, the disapprovers can usually be content in the knowledge that by the time the season has changed, so has the record. That's because even the gleeful buyers-in rarely stick around to see what the group will do next.

In the minds of many, the New York power-poppers Fountains of Wayne are one such band. Their 2003 smash hit Stacy's Mom - a less-than subtle ode to the beautiful older lady, complete with a promo featuring the model and former Mrs Rod Stewart, Rachel Hunter - seemed like just such a release. But anyone who switched off when the song's distorted guitars faded would have been making a mistake.

The band, which formed in the mid-1990s and were already in their second incarnation when Stacy's Mom arrived, had previously demonstrated a rare knack at combining skilful pop songwriting with self-mockery. Not that anyone outside their hardcore fan base and a handful of critics ever noticed.

Their fifth album, Sky Full of Holes, sees the group combining their trademark hooks and grooves with a new-found sense of melancholy.

With both the group's songwriters, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger well into their 40s, there's a definite whiff of middle-aged decline across the 13 songs. The wistful Action Hero deals with the weight of expectations on a stressed-out suburban dad who finds himself having wires taped to his chest by a doctor, while Cemetery Guns retells the story of a military funeral in a way that's about as cheery as you'd expect. The positively upbeat-sounding Richie and Ruben is actually about a pair of entrepreneurs who just can't get a break: "And ever since the seventh grade / They've been saying that they've got it made / And I still haven't gotten paid", sings Collingwood.

But there's plenty of looking on the bright side, too. With a bouncing bass line and squarks of Beatles-esque guitar, Acela provides the album's catchiest and most optimistic moment. Meanwhile, the nostalgic piano-driven Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart has real emotional depth without bumming you out.

While the band seems to have aged significantly since 2007's Traffic and Weather, they haven't lost their expert knack for wordplay, and their ability to craft economical pop rock seems to have only improved. In fact, the suspicion that they aren't even trying can be hard to shake, so much so that the album sometimes feels rather workmanlike.

Minor shortcomings aside, Sky Full of Holes is as mature as it is accomplished. Bet you didn't expect to read that about the band who produced Stacy's Mom.

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