A few years ago, rock writer Michael Azerrad wrote a book that profiled several underground rock bands from the 1980s to early 1990s. It's a terrific book that everyone should read. But the title, Our Band Could Be Your Life, always bugged me. I know it came from that song by the Minutemen, but there's no way my life could have resembled any of these bands. If you were anything like Henry Rollins, we would not be friends.
My life is fairly ordinary, so I find it easy to fall for a band that writes songs about average, ordinary people. The heroes (or at least protagonists) of songs by Fountains of Wayne all have dull jobs, crappy cars, loneliness and financial issues, or similar problems. Or, more accurately, as one wise reviewer put it, "Fountains of Wayne earned their fanbase by writing songs for socially awkward people in their twenties and thirties who just are not quite ready for the real world." OK, I wrote that, but it's apt.
It is not just that Messrs. Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger write pop songs about unremarkable people that make their band. It's also that the songs are insanely catchy, have tons of hooks, and that Collingwood has the perfect bubblegum voice to bring the songs to life.
Take, for example, “Strapped For Cash,” which starts out with keyboards that sounds like Supertramp’s “The Logical Song," but picks up the pace and begins with tale of a guy who falls in debt to some unsavory characters and just can’t catch a break. “So I headed out west to invest in the races, all the goddamn horses kept falling on their faces; didn’t fare much better at the Taj Mahal, chalk it up to bad luck and free alcohol,” Collingwood sings which is, of course, unfortunate, but we’re also let in on the joke and can laugh at the predicament the character gets himself into.
The title track, “Traffic and Weather” is the story of a local news anchor lusting after his co-host. It is very Ron Burgundy-esque. It might border on creepy (one anchor says, “I like those shorts, I’ve never seen them before, I’d like them even more, lying on my bedroom floor.”) if the song weren't so upbeat and disarmingly funny (and if we could not picture Will Ferrell singing “We belong together like traffic and weather” to Christina Applegate). This is a band whose biggest single was a tale of a guy lusting after his girlfriend’s mom, after all.
Another standout track is the single “Somebody to Love,” which has many of the same elements that made “Stacy’s Mom” a hit: memorable lyrics and backing harmonies (this time provided by Melissa Auf Der Mar, the former Smashing Pumpkins bassist has never sounded better). It's the story of two lonely professional singles — Seth Shapiro is a lawyer who calls his mom and likes Coldplay; Beth Mackenzie is a photo editor, which is the “job of her dreams – retouching photos for a magazine aimed at teens.” — meeting and falling in love in an indefatigablely optimistic pop song. Plus, Fountains of Wayne may also be the first band to write a song about having a crush on a girl at the DMV (“Yolanda Hayes”).
It has been about four years since the last proper FOW record, the brilliant Welcome Interstate Managers, and the FOW output during that gap has been good but uninspired (a collection of b-sides and a song for an animated movie, among others). Traffic and Weather is not perfect: the metaphor of waiting for a taxi in the rain is used twice in songs about loneliness (“Somebody to Love” and “The Hotel Majestic”) and not every song works (“Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim” is sweet but its lyrics are simple and lack the cleverness of countless other songs in the deep FOW catalogue). But overall the album is very good news for socially awkward power-pop music fans like me.