Fountains Of Wayne
The Rentals

Generally my criteria for putting several bands in one folder are pretty simple. First, I don't have enough albums by the bands to justify an entire page for each, but I'd like to review them. So I put together bands that I think ought to go together - ones that play in a similar style or genre and/or share the coincidences of time and place. If you like one of the bands in the folder, chances are you'll dig the other ones. Weezer and Fountains Of Wayne are two power-pop bands that emerged in the mid-90s that give hope that good old-fashioned guitar-driven pop about girls can actually prove popular, given half a chance. Both are led by nice guy sensitive types who are a tad too sensitive at times - in other words, wimps. But hey, so are you, I bet, and I'd rather hear wimp rock than the tuneless macho bullshit spewing from bullying excess-testorone damaged grunge idiots that these bands are an alternative too. Flying in the face of most '90s guitar rock, these bands write hooks and melodies as well as rock hard. And they both sound like Cheap Trick!

Fountains Of Wayne (1996) ***1/2

A fun time delivered from this talented but minor band, most of these tunes are catchy and rockin', and I suppose I could end the review there since that's all you need to know about this type of music. Well, I suppose I have to register a few complaints and praises, so here goes:

For the prosecution:
1. None of these songs are as transcendent as a classic Byrds or ELO single.
2. The guitars are way overflanged. Lay off that tremeloe pedal! It gives me a headache.
3. The songs are too calculated. I smell formula.
4. Where's "That Thing You Do"?!?

For the defense:
1. Well, if you're going to hold every pop band to an impossible standard....everyone should have quit making records after the Beatles because nobody did it better.
2. The lyrics are funny, especially these from "Leave The Biker": "His friend leans over and says looks like we got us a fag/I wonder if he's read one word that wasn't in a porno mag."
3. The songs are all melodic, catchy, and rockin'. If you're going to have formula, you could do worse.
4. "Sick Day".

Fountains of Wayne: Utopia Parkway (1999) *****

Yeah, you counted those stars right...their first album was good enough in its generic mid-90s alt-rock way, but this is simply the best pop album of the decade -- better than poor Weezer down below, better than the overhyped Matthew Sweet, better even than the underhyped Sloan. While on the debut the band relied too heavily on crunching post-Monster guitars, here they make a quantum leap by opening up the sound to a broader palette, adopting quirky New Wave keyboard brushes here and there, settling down to acoustic guitars now and then, and even delivering a lush piano ballad. This is nothing more or less than the 1990s' Parallel Lines or Hysteria -- an overproduced monster of rich pop-rock hookcraft aimed squarely at the world conquest with nearly every song a potential smash hit single. In a better world this would've been one of those pop classics that takes over radio for a year and everybody has a copy lying near the dashboard of their car, just like Rumours; but as far as I can tell (I wasn't in America last year), this produced not a single hit, even though the obvious single "Denise" is one of the most throat-grabbingly catchy slabs of radio-prime hard-rocking pop I've heard since the first Cars album. Maybe it's the terminally smart-ass lyrics: "Prom Theme," aurally sounds like a heavenly soft-rock pastiche, fully living up to its title, and while you can slow dance to it, you'll be snickering as you do ("Tonight we'll reach for the stars / We'll drive our rented cars / And play our air guitars"). Now to a Gen-X misanthrope like myself, that mocking irony is what keeps "Prom Theme" from turning into maudlin mush, but I suppose to a public used to and expecting maudlin cliches, making fun of the soft-rock genre ensures that it won't get airplay on lite FM. Utopia Parkway amounts to a concept album sarcastically overviewing '90s American byways in Everysuburb (more specifically, middle-class New Jersey), kind of like how the Beach Boys conceptualized southern California back in the '60s -- except that this album is more consistent than anything the Beach Boys (or Undertones, for that matter) ever released. As such, it requires a summer song, and "It Must Be Summer," while I've heard those sentiments evoked a thousand times before, still makes me want to head to the beach (even if, paradoxically, leader Chris Collingwood sings that he doesn't want to lie in the sand). "Go Hippie," sounds like the type of thing Oasis would write if they had more talent, with its swirling late '60s melody and flanged guitars providing an ironic counterpoint to lyrics making fun of the hippie protagonist. Similarly, "Lost in Space" out-Weezers Weezer; "Amity Gardens," and "A Fine Day for a Parade," are suburban slice-of-daily-life sketches that make me quaintly sad, like an American Ray Davies or a modern-day Simon & Garfunkel; "Trouble Times," proves once again that breaking up is hard to do; and "Red Dragon Tattoo," gets attached to your skin much like the subject of the song. The album lapses only in two spots: "Hat and Feet," is wispy and slight, while "Laser Show," is actively annoying and the album's only truly bad song. A pop masterpiece? Yeah. It makes me imagine I'm cruising the parking lot at the mall back in the States, one hand on the radio dial, another on my foot-long chili dog, thinking about girls, illicit substances, and .38 Special CDs.

Reader Comments

Rich Bunnell,

Oh my god, you're scaring the crap out of me. I just bought this album today on a whim not knowing that you had reviewed it. I can't rate it yet, but I know I really love it, and that "Denise" is one of the Top 5 catchiest songs of the '90s. Yeah, I haven't heard every song of the '90s, but I can still say that. And don't be knocking Matthew Sweet, dammit. Anyone who can make an album with the title "100% Fun" and actually make it live up to that title is worthy of some praise.

Weezer (1994) ****

The thing I like about Weezer is that they're dorks. They sing about girl problems with a painful honesty that makes Jonathan Richman seem inexpressive and well-adjusted by comparison, and they are not in the least ashamed of being three-chord pop. Their Ric Ocasek produced debut makes a sonic amalgam of Cars pop, Pixies dynamics, and an all-around store of Cheap Tricks for a blend that sounds, well, generic, but in a good way. What makes these hooky pop-rock songs so compelling are the lyrics. Rivers Cuomo either needs serious therapy or probably has sat through enough psychosessions already. He doesn't sound nearly as pathetic here as on the next album, thanks to some straightforwardly happy tunes like "Buddy Holly", one of those rare songs actually improved by its bitchin' video. "Undone" sounds a bit too much like the Pixies, but hey that's no crime - the Pixies rocked! I can't go for the fake Beach Boys of "Surf Wax America", though. "No One Else" is paranoid possessive pushed to the extreme; Cuomo wants a girl who puts her makeup away when he's gone and doesn't laugh at any other guys' jokes, and it would be creepy if Cuomo made a half-convincing misogynist - his girlfriend would just kick his nerdy little ass. The quintessential song is probably "In The Garage", in which Cuomo lists his nerdboy toys - the X-Men, Dungeons & Dragons, Kiss (yech! just how do those that campy '70s generation stomach that crap? Oh yeah, I forgot, the '70s were the cultural low point of Western Civilization) - waiting for him in his hideaway womb, where he sings his stupid songs with stupid words. Well, Rivers, your songs aren't stupid - you need a bit more self-confidence, buddy. I mean, just a little wouldn't kill you.

Weezer: Pinkerton (1996) ***1/2

Weezer deliver the same formula they delivered last time, only the band is tighter and less monochramatic (some of these songs have actual dynamics beyond 1-2-3-4 crunch), and the songwriting's a bit more consistent. This didn't do as well commercially as the debut, which is understandable, because here's where Cuomo really goes over the edge. The lyrics present a sad portrait of a confused, pathetic young man who can barely function with women. It opens with Cuomo listing all the women he's had one-night stands with, crying that he's "Tired Of Sex". Later on he's screaming that he's not going to bother with falling in love anymore, because some girl broke his heart once - a standard pop song trope, I know, but Cuomo actually means it. The hit was "Good Life", by far the most upbeat number, because it's the only one that offers a bit of hope. At least he finds a bit of self-deprecating humor in his sham of a love life - the best songs are the ones in which he falls in love with a half-Japanese girl who turns him down, and falls in love with a lesbian, leading him to come up with this catchy line: "Everybody's a little queer - why can't you be a little straight?" The album ends with an acoustic number in which Cuomo feels ridiculously guilty about taking away some girl's virginity - crushed a "Butterfly", uh-huh. The band plays a little louder, a little heavier and darker, and less poppier than before, but otherwise musically it's a carbon copy of the debut.

The Rentals: Return Of The Rentals (1995) **1/2

Nostalgia for the '80s has already hit us. Bassist Matt Sharp fronts this Weezer side-project; since Cuomo is fairly dictatorial and won't let the other band members contribute their songs to Weezer albums, this is a much needed outlet for Sharp. His songwriting is probably about as good as Cuomo's, if less interesting lyrically, as far as I can tell - the problem is in the presentation. Placing his detached vocals behind a wall of Moogs, Sharp tries his best to recreate the sounds of Pac-Man and Depeche Numan, and succeeds - only, in case you've forgotten, that '80s synthesizer sound was CHEESY CRAP. Sturdily repetitive pop-rock melodies are just that much sturdier and more compelling married to the crush of cranked-up guitars than married to the static swing of bleeping synths. The songs on the album are alright, and I suppose if you're the campy type who actually like dorky synthesizers that recreate the swingin' sounds of a video arcade circa 1982, then by all means investigate. If not, then avoid. The record company payola hit was "Friends Of P", which they played endlessly on MTV (like they do every video), in case you've forgotten (which you probably have).

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