In between all musical anniversaries and special anniversary editions, not many will have noticed that last October it was exactly 25 years ago that Fountains Of Wayne's first album was released. "Fountains Of What?" I hear you ask. "You're mistaken, you mean Wayne Fontana, that 60s British pop singer who died last year?"
No, it is definitely about the band with that enigmatic name, from the American northeast. They operated roughly between 1995 and 2013, produced five albums and some fifteen singles and toured the world extensively. The Netherlands was also visited, in 1997 they even played Pinkpop.
Yet hardly anyone on this side of the Atlantic knows their name. Obviously because of the lack of well-known hits, but perhaps also because Europe was flooded during that period by a wave of Britpop groups, all claiming the attention of the public and media. As a result, a lot of worthwhile music passed by under the radar, including these Fountains Of Wayne. A big omission, so it is about time to ask for some attention and recognition for this magnificent band, hence this biography and oeuvre review.
It's 1985, Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, when freshmen Chris Collingwood (born in England, but living in Sellersville, Pennsylvania) and Adam Schlesinger (from Montclair, New Jersey) meet. It turns out they are both musically talented and write songs. A given that creates a coalition and during their school career they play together in many bands.
So far nothing remarkable, but for the two of them it is not a temporary whim, because even after their school days they continue to write songs and record demos together. They perform live in various line-ups, including a group called The Wallflowers. But it doesn't gain much attention, the group is disbanded and the band name is passed on to Jakob Dylan (yes, the son of).
They christen their new band Pinwheel and with the compositions and demos they have made up to that point, they even manage to land a record deal. It will never come to an actual release, however, because it turns out that there's a lot amiss with that record company. Still, they manage to prevent the two from going into business with other companies, which is followed by legal wrangling for almost three years. The demos in question surfaced later as bootlegs on the Internet and there are already several songs in there that will be included on their albums later in a more elaborated version.
The 'real' Fountains Of Wayne
When that false start has been overcome, they're taking their musical ambition seriously. New songs are being written and recorded all the time, and Schlesinger's mother proposes that they call themselves Fountains Of Wayne, after a garden center in Wayne, New Jersey, near Montclair, where lots of gaudy fountains and other garden kitsch are sold. The store has long since disappeared, but has been immortalized for a while by a scene in an episode of The Sopranos. Collingwood in particular initially hates that name, but for lack of something better, the name is retained.
They keep on writing new songs and after a week there is enough material for an album. It also takes just a week to put it all to record. Most parts are played by the two of them with the help of Danny Weinkauf on bass.
In October 1996, their self-titled record is released by Atlantic Records. Reviews are positive, and no fewer than five singles are pulled from the album, of which 'Radiation Vibe' gets some attention, but there's no real breakthrough.
What does become clear however is that Chris and Adam are two extremely talented, experienced and original songwriters, with songs that refer to numerous (mostly British) examples. Beatles, Kinks, a touch of psychedelia, even an occasional folky slant. Pleasant melodies and harmonies, surprising chord progressions and striking lyrics. No world-improving statements, but small and recognizable subjects from the close environment. The American music media soon gave them the death-defying label of 'power pop', which would hinder them for the rest of their career. It is a meaningless name for this versatile and eclectic collection of musical genres.
When the record is out, a live band has to be formed and Jody Porter and Brian Young are brought in. Adam Schlesinger switches from keyboards to bass guitar (because it gives him more freedom of movement on stage) and in this line-up the band will stay together for the rest of their existence. Porter was already a versatile and very British-oriented guitarist and Young came from The Posies, a rock band also very much influenced by Merseybeat and English new wave.
Both songwriters work largely independently of each other but decide, in analogy to Lennon and McCartney, to sign all their songs with Collingwood/Schlesinger in order to prevent any arguments about who had done what in any particular song. There is no big difference in their way of composing, Collingwood's lyrics are sometimes more bleak ('Prom Theme') and occasionally quite venomous, although he's also able to come up with subdued love songs ('Yours And Mine'). Schlesinger is not only a skilled composer but he also takes care of the production and usually seems to have complete arrangements in mind during the process. In addition, he's involved with several other musical projects, about which more later.
To promote the first album, there is intensive touring and preparations are made for a successor. The band has now settled in New York and the idea for a more thematic approach towards a new album arises.
Utopia Parkway (1999)
This eventually results in 'Utopia Parkway', the second album in which many songs are about life in suburban New York, subjects inspired by 'Muswell Hillbillies' from The Kinks, in which Ray Davies described his environment in London. Humorous, ironic, sad, sometimes wry reflections on how people live and try to survive in the urban environment. Inventive lyrics, with occasionally corny, but also very inventive language use. 'Amity Gardens' ("If you knew now what you knew then, you wouldn't want to go to Amity Gardens again") or 'A Fine Day For A Parade' are some fine examples of this. The title track describes the status of the pop musician with a lot of humor and mild self-mockery:
"Well I've been saving for a custom van
And I've been playing in a cover band
And my baby doesn't understand
Why I never turned from boy to man"
On the musical side they come up once more with a lot of beautiful melodies and many influences from British sixties bands in particular. Also striking is the contribution of new band members Young and Porter. Partly due to the intensive touring, they are fully integrated and in particular Porter's sparkling guitar parts are comparable to the best of Britpop.
The record receives excellent reviews, Mojo Magazine puts it on the #2 spot of that year's best albums, and three singles are released, of which 'Red Dragon Tattoo' is prominently used in the Stephen King series 'Kingdom Hospital', but once again there's not much commercial success. This is due to the passive attitude of the company Atlantic, which reverts the situation and accuses the band of falling short in terms of promotion. They are fired. That has a major demotivating effect and it will take four years before a next album will see the light of day. Collingwood in particular suffers greatly from the fact that all their hard work over the years is being discarded in such a way.
Yet they continue to work on several other projects. Notably Adam Schlesinger; he produces the work of a number of artist friends and also appears in another New York band called Ivy (whose 'Worry About You' remarkably becomes the main tune in that same Stephen King series). He is also a much sought-after composer for film and TV. He previously wrote 'That Thing You Do', a clever Beatlesque song for the Tom Hanks film of the same name. It was nominated as best original film song of the year for both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. This success provides him with a lot of work and eventually he will be the one that will largely initiate (and finance) the recordings for a new Fountains Of Wayne album after this rather disappointing phase.
They decide to record new songs entirely independently and without any external pressure, in order to be able to knock on the door of companies with a finished and complete album. Soon S-Curve Records, a sub-label of Virgin, decides it's worthwhile to release 'Welcome Interstate Managers'.
Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)
This happens in June 2003 and the record not only gets great reviews, but would also become their most successful product commercially.
This is mainly caused by the single 'Stacy's Mom'. A cleverly made and accessible song, more or less intended as a kind of answer to 'My Best Friends Girl' by The Cars. With another typical Fountains Of Wayne subject: teenage boy finds his girlfriend Stacy's mother a lot more exciting than herself. A feeling that apparently is mutual. A theme that appeals to quite a few adolescents, and to a lot of mothers as well. A sexy video clip does the rest. A super commercial and cleverly constructed song, but absolutely not representative of what the band really has to offer and actually the least song on this otherwise sublime album. It is even nominated for a Grammy Award which is usually not really an indication of good music. It will also remain their only hit, a millstone around their necks that will seriously hinder the further course of their career. As always, the audience just wants to hear the hit record while the rest is taken for granted. While it's the rest that contains the absolute gems of this record like 'Hackensack', 'Little Red Light', 'Valley Winter Song'or 'Supercollider' (the latter can easily compete with some of the best Noel Gallagher songs). Also 'Mexican Wine' is worth checking out. Not only how a song in which two people are killed and one is fired can still sound cheerful ("I tried to change but I changed my mind."), but also because in the prudish part of the US the video sparked discussion, due to the fact that it shows two teenage girls mimicking drinking Mexican wine (=tequila).
In the wake of this successful album there is extensive touring, so demanding that two years later, while in Japan, Chris Collingwood has to be hospitalized due to a serious nervous breakdown. His recovery progresses very slowly, and in the meantime he also struggles with complications such as depression and alcoholism. Partly because of this, it will take another four years before something new from Fountains Of Wayne will be heard.
To bridge that gap, Virgin releases the double album 'Out-Of-State Plates'.
It features only two new songs, but also contains all their previous singles B-sides. Further on there are some home demos, live recordings, and for the first time a number of covers of a very eclectic nature, including songs by Ricky Nelson ('Today's Teardrops'), ELO (Can't Get It Out Of My Head'), Aztec Camera ('Killermont Street'), Jackson Browne ('These Days'), Burt Bacharach ('Trains And Boats And Planes') and, most notably, an intense version of Britney Spears's '... Baby One More Time', which makes one forget the clinical and dispassionate original altogether.
So not really a new record, but even second choice Fountains Of Wayne-songs are still a lot better than the first choice of a lot of their contemporaries.
During Collingwood's illness, Adam Schlesinger works tirelessly. He is still active in Ivy, with which he will release a total of five albums, further on he writes numerous songs for American TV shows and other bands. And apart from all that he continues to work on new work for Fountains Of Wayne. As a result, a new record called 'Traffic And Weather' is released in 2007. By this time Chris Collingwood has also recovered, although his compositional contribution is limited to only three songs. Yet it sounds like a full-fledged FoW album again. Stubborn as always, because, in their own words: "nobody is waiting for a new Stacy's Mom". Traffic And Weather (2007)
As the album title already suggests, many of their lyrics deal with life on the road as well as other aspects of travel and transportation, many geographical references too. It has been an inspiring subject throughout their repertoire, as have the often hilarious stories of the ups and downs of office life.
Best songs on this record: 'Someone To Love', a kind of New York take on the Beatles-Eleanor Rigby story, 'I-95', voted by Rolling Stone as one of the best songs of 2007 and 'Fire In The Canyon', a genuine Collingwood country song. There is also some outside help on this record: Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers, Melissa Auf Der Maur of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, and from that latter group also guitarist James Iha. Schlesinger and Iha had been friends for some time and they also had started a new band together some time before, Tinted Windows, with a quite unlikely line-up: lead singer is Taylor Hanson (from former boy hit band Hanson) and as drummer they enlisted Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick. A curious and multicolored cast that releases the album Tinted Windows in 2009. In the same year there is also a live DVD with a concert by Fountains Of Wayne in Chicago, called 'No Better Place', which makes clear that the live-band also forms a hardworking, close and energetic group, without the necessity for all kinds of distracting theatrical aids or other show elements that so many bands need to divert the attention from the music.
Meanwhile, Chris Collingwood is completely back on track and preparations begin for what will become their fifth and final album. In the meantime they have performed a lot acoustically which has a distinct impact on their compository and productional approach. However, due to all the problems in the past years, a distance has grown between the two songwriters. The writing and recording for the new record is characterized by a lot of arguing and disagreements about the songs and their approach. It escalates so much that the work is suspended and the two have to get professional help. Their psychiatrist (luckily) advises them to finish this album, do some promotion and then go their own separate ways.
All these complications and obstacles can hardly be heard on the final album. 'Sky Full Of Holes ' is be released in 2011 on the independent Yep Roc label. The songs are noticeably quieter than the ones on previous records. The subjects are usually darker, although they still derive their inspiration for the lyrics from their close environment and experience. A reluctant-holiday-with-your-parents-story ('The Summer Place'), the adventures of two stubbornly goofy entrepreneurs ('Richie And Ruben'), a depressing image of a family man who fantasizes being an action hero, in contrast to his state of health ('Action Hero'), an ode to the handyman who is also in danger of working till he perishes ('Workingman's Hands'), and a sympathetic boost for a girlfriend who has gone down the drain ('Hate To See You Like This'). Also a beautiful love song like 'A Road Song' and the record closes with 'Cemetery Guns', a poetical anti-war statement.
Although two more singles of this Fountains Of Wayne swan song are released and the critics generally respond positively, this album again passes the general public quite unnoticed. The end of the band is inevitable, there are several more gigs, the very last on October 19, 2013 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and from there everyone goes their own way.
Adam Schlesinger continues his production work, also providing material for a variety of TV shows as well as songs for other artists, including The Monkees and America. Chris Collingwood works on new songs, culminating in a new band, Look Park, whose album of the same name will be released in 2016. Jody Porter continues as a session guitarist and Brian Young eventually ends up as a drummer with The Jesus And Mary Chain.
Chris Collingwood, Jody Porter, Brian Young and Sharon van Etten perform 'Hackensack' as a tribute to Adam Schlesinger (2020).
Because the group has never been officially disbanded, there is regular speculation about a possible reunion performance.
This eventually takes place in 2020, although for a very different reason than everyone would have wished for, because on April 1 of that year Adam Schlesinger dies after a short illness from Covid-19. He was aged only 52. The other band members, supplemented by fellow New Jersey musician Sharon van Etten on bass, play his song 'Hackensack' as a tribute. It's not a physical reunion however, because unfortunately due to the prevailing lockdown, the performance takes place through a kind of Zoom split-screen session.
Adam Schlesinger was a thorough pop musician who breathed music, as a composer and producer he was extremely familiar with all possible pop music genres. Without being guilty of vulgar copying, he managed to bring together the best of all those styles and influences in a traditional way, but from a completely individual angle. He always wrote his songs with Chris Collingwood's voice in mind while continuing to play the supporting role of bassist/backing vocalist on stage.
One of the songs that best typifies him as a songwriter, and about which he was very satisfied himself, is 'All Kinds Of Time'. In it, he describes the split-second moment in the mind of a quarterback, who has to make a decisive pass during an important football game. An ultimate moment of stress, but instead of panicking, his brain stops the clock, so that the heavy pressure of the moment suddenly makes way for a meditative state, in which the sportsman can make his decision in peace. Another striking and divergent subject for pop music lyrics, beautifully and emphatically performed by Chris Collingwood and the band provides the song with a backing that refines the drama and tension to a climax without getting bombastic.
And that's just one example. There are always those surprising topics, hilarious language, with original rhyming words and opening sentences that immediately make you curious ("he was killed by a cellular phone explosion"). Original chord progressions, beautiful melody lines, and many songs contain such inventive bridge sections that these alone could have formed the basis for a song. Just listen to the one in 'Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart' ("Melancholy comes, like a robin at your window"). There are a lot of these kinds of beautifully rendered little stories, but it is almost impossible to put a genre label on their music.
Lyrics are very often a subordinate necessity in pop music, the content and scope of which are hardly relevant. Some composers manage to avoid this, even without poetic pretensions or Nobel prize nominations. Collingwood and Schlesinger can definitely compete in that craft with the likes of Ray Davies, or Chris Difford and Glen Tillbrook from Squeeze, while on the subject of sheer songwriting even Messrs Lennon and McCartney wouldn't have been ashamed of this kind of work.
The death of Adam Schlesinger forms a sad and final chord for a band that has delivered nothing but beautiful moments from start to finish. Both solid guitar rock and calm ballads, cheerful teenage songs, but also venomous observations. The lyrics are inventive, hilarious but also (sometimes even at the same time) pessimistic, but all this without being too corny or too gloomy. All this with many quotes and recognizable moments from the entire rock history.
Downright shameful and short-sighted of the pop media chattering after each other to deposit such a band and its oeuvre somewhere in the back row of the pop history books as a 'power pop one hit wonder'. Fountains Of Wayne deserve much better and it would be nice if this introduction could generate some more appreciation.
The first album is now 25 years old, perhaps that anniversary could bring renewed attention and recognition to the most underrated band of this century (and a piece of the last). Unfortunally their records and CDs are hard to find in the regular trade, but most of their work is still accessible via YouTube and Spotify. Hopefully this website can act as a new portal to that.