(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, August 5, 2011

CD review - Fountains of Wayne, Sky Full of Holes (2011)

Pop masterpieces feature engaging stories and characters
Fountains of Wayne consistently deliver solid pop music. Sky Full of Holes, their fifth album, follows the band's regular formula of coupling a small set of thematic approaches with smoothly arranged, hook-laden pop music. While none of the songs is likely to rival Stacy's Mom for chart success, they're all fairly solid and interesting.

The key to Fountains of Wayne's success is their sly sense of humor, their interesting lyrical phrasing, and the way that most of their songs avoid musical cliches. Smoother and more accessible than Steely Dan, FoW's songs have a similarly distinctive East Coast vibe, albeit more power pop oriented.

The idealized Fountains of Wayne song elevates a prosaic subject, giving it unexpected attention. When the songs are about regular people, like a neurotic woman (The Summer Place) or a father (Action Hero), they are full of detail and reveal hidden inner monologues, quirkiness, or quiet desperation. Other times, the band takes a pedestrian topic, like a favorite pub (Radio Bar), and builds up a set of witty observations.

They also usually scatter in some oblique cultural commentary and some self-absorbed, first person relationship songs to spice up the flow. Sky Full of Holes hits these approaches as well.

The first two tracks turned out to be my favorites as they kicked off the more uptempo half of the album. The Summer Place is a power pop character study of a woman out of place in her adulthood. She's neurotic and depressed, but the music is declarative and cheery. Bored and disconnected, even her risk taking is somehow constrained:
She took a handful of mushrooms
That she bought from a surfer
She spent the night in a hospital room
So the doctors could observe her
At another level, though, the songs seems to be referring to the extended adolescence of many Americans.

The next track, Richie and Ruben, is another happy song about a quirky pair of losers and their various failed ventures. The details of their sketchy business decisions are amusing, but the real joke is that the singer is the sucker who's invested in them despite knowing them. The simple chord progression includes a couple of jazzy major sevenths and a tasteful fill guitar. Maybe it's the sardonic lyrics or Chris Collingwood's trademark casual delivery, but it's a catchy earworm.

Sky Full of Holes, like other FoW albums, doesn't stay in the comfortable space of jokes and irony. Shifting the mood, Cold Comfort Flowers is less direct. The verse lyrics are impressionistic, colored by darker pessimism:
Pink clouds, summer sorrow, oceanside swales
If you don't feel pretty with your face in the tide
Well, file your complaint in weary detail
And tell the little people you tried
The chorus is a pretty bit of harmonized Beatlesque psychedelia, implying a kind of acceptance. The mix of cynicism and acquiescence is another familiar combination from the band.

Sky Full of Holes
doesn't signal a change in FoW's musical direction, but the band still feels fresh and interesting. Ignoring industry trends towards a low-fi, DIY sound and heavy attitude, Fountains of Wayne continue to polish their understated pop gems.

(Here's another single from the album: Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart)

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