Monday, December 12, 2011

Are They Serious About This? Fountains Of Wayne's Traffic And Weather!

The Good: Sounds good, Some fun songs with imaginative lyrics
The Bad: Nothing stellar on the vocals front, Music is ALL derivative, Does not replay well.
The Basics: With Traffic And Weather, Fountains Of Wayne creates a decent, but not spectacular musical outing that was just too similar to other works to leave me satisfied.

Every now and then I encounter an album that I find I enjoy, but it makes me think about the relative quality to music. I like originality, especially thematic originality. I like it when I find something I have not actually heard before. The problem, then, is when I run into an eclectic mix of the two concepts. That has happened with the album Traffic And Weather, by one of the more original bands of the new millennium, Fountains of Wayne.

With fourteen tracks clocking in at 47:43, Traffic And Weather is a pop-rock album that presents Fountains Of Wayne as the next coming of the Steve Miller Band and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with the thematic quirkiness of They Might Be Giants. Yes, it's storytelling rock and roll like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the early '80s synth and guitar pop that instantly evokes memories of the Steve Miller Band and the weird storytelling of groups like They Might Be Giants.

Led by the vocals of Chris Collingwood, Fountains Of Wayne presents fourteen guitar/bass/keyboard pop-rock tracks that were written by Adam Schlesinger (the bass player) and Collingwood. The result is an album that has a quirky sense of humor to it and rambles far more than most pop-rock albums. Instead of the usual songs about love and loss, Traffic And Weather throws in dealing with loan sharks, driving around, and the joys of getting high into the mix. Many of the songs - "New Routine," "Michael And Heather At The Baggage Claim," and "Yolanda Hayes," among others - are little vignettes about people and their relationships. They tend to be intriguing little ditties that are generally fun to listen to.

Fountains Of Wayne deserves some serious credit for the level of detail they put into their lyrics. The opening track to the album, "Someone To Love," has a great sense of story and characters to it. Opening with lines like "Seth Shapiro got his law degree / He moved to Brooklyn from Schenectady, ? /. . . He calls his mom, says he's doing fine / She's got somebody on the other line / Puts Coldplay on, pours a glass of wine / And curls up with a book about organized crime" ("Someone To Love") the album instantly sucks the listener in and gets them curious about what might come next. Fountains Of Wayne deftly presents the songs with lyrics that tend to have a higher level of diction than most pop-rock artists these days.

The thematic diversity of Traffic And Weather makes for a fun album. 'Strapped For Cash," for example, presents the humorous side of being deep in debt when Collingwood sings "Well it was Saturday night, I was sitting in the kitchen / Checking out the women on Spanish television / Got a call from Paul who was just let out of prison . . . / You're gonna get your money in a couple of days, okay? / I'm just a little strapped for cash . . ." ("Strapped For Cash"). The song goes on to explore all the ways the narrator tries desperately to come up with the money needed to pay off his loan shark, but it all falls apart on him. The song is well constructed and tells an interesting story that one almost never hears in the realm of music, much less the pop-rock format.

What, then, makes this album that I seem to actually enjoy so much fall down into razor territory? It's all in the music and vocals. The lyrics are tight, interesting and outside the ridiculous repetition of "this better be good" in the song by the same title, the group seems to have a decent grasp on writing and being original about it, using a minimal of obvious rhyme conceits.

The vocals are fine, but they quickly establish Chris Collingwood's range and do little to challenge that. Outside "Michael And Heather At The Baggage Claim," where he goes a little higher, Collingwood stays very safe within the confines of his lower-tenor range. He has a mellow voice and he is very able to articulate the lyrics he sings. Indeed, it seems he has a strong ability to put his voice forward of the music in a way that is prioritized much like Art Alexakis with Everclear. Collingwood has a fine, clear voice, but if you've heard a single Fountains Of Wayne song on the radio (most likely "Stacy's Mom" or "1985") then you've heard the entirety of Collingwood's vocal range on Traffic And Weather.

On most of the tracks, Collingwood sounds like he is simply singing an impression of Steve Miller. Songs like “Traffic And Weather,” he gets a repetitive bleating that is almost identical to Miller's on "Abracadabra." If it were one track, that would be one thing, but song after song it sounds like he is simply limiting himself to Miller's sound and range. As a result, "The Hotel Majestic," "Strapped For Cash" and even "Planet Of Weed" all sound like they might be identical if Miller himself covered them. This is much more likely to be a problem for people who grew up in the 1980s than people growing up now and encountering Fountains Of Wayne as they are, as opposed to within a larger continuum of music.

The problem is compounded by the music. The instrumentals are all very much within a very confined range of up-tempo guitar/bass/keyboard tracks that sound like virtually any 1980s garage band. But the combination is very geared toward the 1980s retro crowd. "Someone To Love" sounds so very much like an '80s dance/pop track that it instantly brought to mind "Pop! Goes My Heart" from "Music And Lyrics." The whole album seems intent on reconstructing the pop-rock sound that came about when small bands realized they could incorporate production elements into their music that relied heavily on synthesizers and a kind of cheesy sense of background vocals that is very distinctive from the '80s. So, for example, on "Someone To Love," the male quartet is aided by Melissa Auf Der Maur for backing vocals and the contrast is almost humorous for its generic background female quality.

"'92 Subaru" contains possibly the most generic and overused guitar riff I've ever heard and it makes Fountains Of Wayne seem amateurish, like they are not doing anything musically that other garage band quartets did before them. Virtually every one of their songs sound like a song I have heard before elsewhere. So, even the combination of trumpets and guitars on "Yolanda Hayes" seems familiar, probably from my love of Oasis. This is not a truly bad thing, it is just that the music is not as original as I would like it to be.

The problem is that the album does not hold up well over multiple listens. I liked “Traffic And Weather,” the track, quite a bit the first eight times I listened to the album, but after time ten the whole album just takes a nose-dive toward the banal. Indeed, my experience was that even though I became more familiar with the album, I started liking it less the most I listened to it. The idea that it was so similar to other works I've heard in the past just began to bother me and undermine the lyrical originality of the work.

I suppose those who like very standard pop-rock will enjoy Traffic And Weather, but it's ultimately impossible for me to recommend because while it is fun, it's too derivative, it's too similar to what I've already (and often) heard. Those who have a higher tolerance for repetition might well enjoy it.

The best track is the album's slower track, "Michael And Heather At The Baggage Claim," the low point might well be the late track "Planet Of Weed."

For other fun albums, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Then: The Early Years - They Might Be Giants
Fire - Electric Six
Harmful If Swallowed - Dane Cook


For other music reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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