Wry New York power-popsters can pen a tune, but can’t quite win your heart.
Johnny Sharp 2011
There is a common misconception among British cultural snobs which says that Americans don’t ‘do’ irony. They obviously haven’t noticed the long tradition of US rock acts which have spent decades with their tongues spot-welded to the inside of their cheeks – acts like Ween, They Might Be Giants and Ben Folds.
But irony and humour in music is like garlic in food – a little goes a long way. And occasionally on this, their fifth album, smart-assed guitar pop veterans Fountains of Wayne could do with playing it a little straighter.
Of course, we’ll forgive anything for the sake of a good tune, and FoW’s songwriting pairing of Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger still knock out nagging melodic hooks in their sleep. In the 15 years since they first crossed UK pop-pickers’ radars with Radiation Vibe, the 2003 single Stacey’s Mom has been their only other hit, but they’ve served a small but loyal fanbase with a stock-in trade of wry vignettes about suburban ne’er-do-wells offset by deceptively sunny guitar pop.
The woah-oh refrains of The Summer Place and Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart suggest that formula still works, and after two or three listens you’ll have one of this album’s many purpose-built ear-worms wriggling around inside you whether you want to or not. The band is also past masters at provoking an aural double-take with lines like "They opened up a bar called Living Hell" or "His son is throwing peas and eating with his feet".
And yet, something’s missing. An emotional engagement, perhaps, because they sometimes seem positively embarrassed to play from the heart. That tendency is epitomised by A Road Song, a love song written on the road which apologises for how naff it is to write a love song on the road. Likewise, the fleetingly arresting Radio Bar is over-sugared with effervescent horns, making the whole thing sound like a forced smile at a party they’d rather not be at.
After the hooks have faded and the wit has waned, the song that sticks in the memory for this listener is the warm, lilting Firelight Waltz, which, for once, doesn’t seem ashamed of showing some genuine emotion. There’s probably irony in there somewhere.