Pop Mart 

Music: Fountains of Wayne may not be searching for the perfect pop song, but they seem to find it anyway.

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Two years ago, country singer Robbie Fulks wrote a song called “Fountains of Wayne Hotline.” It was a joke, of course. Based on a game that Fulks and his band used to play on the road, the track featured the country outlaw calling a fictional helpline run by the Fountains of Wayne guys. He’d explain the problem: He couldn’t come up with a bridge to his song or something. Within a few seconds, the helpline operators would have the perfect pop solution, right down to the harmonic shifts, guiding Fulks to a guaranteed hit. Ironically, it was probably the biggest single Fulks ever scored—which, despite his talent, isn’t saying much.

More importantly, though, the song nailed Fountains of Wayne—in a loving way. Full of the same crisp power chords and tight-laced harmonies the New York-based quartet has made a career out of, Fulks’ track captured the brilliance of Fountains of Wayne: meticulous arrangements, love of a big hook, tight adherence to pop formula. It was like a commercial for the band—one the group absolutely loved.

“We thought it was hilarious,” says bassist and songwriter Adam Schlesinger. “We found out about it the same way everyone else did: We heard about it from friends. It was a fun song—though, of course, we still had to kick his ass for writing it in the first place.”

Schlesinger laughs a bit at this—then gets serious: “I’ll tell you what, though, if writing a good song was as simple as a couple bullet points, everyone would do it.”

Though it’s unlikely they’d still be able to do it as well as Fountains of Wayne. Over the last decade, Schlesinger and his writing partner Chris Collingwood have consistently produced some of the best pop songs around—tracks that apply the laws of Lennon and McCartney while still finding innumerable ways to sound timeless and off-the-cuff. The two are basically classic craftsmen, whittling away until that perfect melody line comes through. Some end up sounding like forgotten Motown classics—or at least Cheap Trick’s version of Motown. Others bristle with snarling rock undertones, softened by intentionally thick production and plenty of pop trappings. The band even ventures into the kind of rambling country rock of ’70s AM radio—stuff that requires long stretches of highway to truly appreciate. Regardless, though, the final product often sounds vaguely familiar and inevitably memorable—pleasant tracks full of clever lyrics and easily identifiable characters that just feel right.

“Honestly, there’s no great trick to it,” Schlesinger says. “We try to write the kind of songs we like, and we know what we’re good at as a group. We don’t try to write the perfect pop song or anything. We’re perfectly content to put out something that’s blatantly mediocre.”

Of course, that hasn’t happened yet, though some critics have been slightly less glowing about Fountain of Wayne’s latest, Traffic and Weather (Atlantic). The main criticism: There’s no instantly recognizable single like “Stacy’s Mom,” the MILF ode from the group’s last record Welcome Interstate Managers that finally catapulted the New York quartet onto the charts. And, while that’s true—only Traffic and Weather’s title track sports that much wit and charm—hit singles have (oddly) never been a concern of the band. Their albums, the current one included, have—like the classic albums that inspired them—always been about a love of pop, not the pop charts. Songs pay homage to Fountains influences, including the hints of Queen in the “This Better Be Good” guitar solo, or Collingwood borrowing Billy Joel’s “heart-attack-ack-ack” in the AOR-ready “Strapped for Cash.” Then there’s the shimmering vibe— right down to the back-masked guitar solo—of the psychedelic era on “Revolving Dora.” The group’s songs are as detailed as Schlesinger’s lyrics, using small blemishes to tell the tale.

“It’s really the little things that make a song,” he says. “[With the lyrics], we tell little stories. We don’t necessarily have time for a whole plot, but we can take snapshots. And that’s usually enough to tell the story.”

Which is maybe the one Fountains of Wayne rule Fulks missed on his track—though it is implied in the conversations—and the one that Schlesinger holds the most dear. He knows that a couple quick changes and a tempo shift and a barreling punk track can become a Burt Bacharach ballad. It’s what has made him one of Hollywood’s go-to songwriters, penning the pop songs for movies like Music & Lyrics and That Thing You Do! And it’s what is often responsible for the long lag between Fountains albums—on average the group releases a disc once every three years.

“Plus, we’re a little lazy,” Schlesinger laughs. Guess Fulks missed that one, too. 

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE The Depot, 400 W. South Temple. Tuesday, Aug. 21, 7 p.m. DepotSLC.com

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Jeff Inman

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