I know, here I am once again flogging New Jersey’s Fountains of Wayne, a band I pushed at you before, with their wonderful song of broken romance, Troubled Times. I adore them, though I suppose there’s nothing revolutionary about FOW, except within the context of today’s popular music. Led by songwriters Chris Collingsworth and Adam Schlesinger, this group hewed to the old values of pop: have a hook; make the melody memorable; do the odd unexpected thing to keep ‘em interested; emphasize harmonies; tell a memorable story; be disciplined. These guys would have been right at home in the Brill Building, sitting next to Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach and Carole King, cranking out hits for the masses. They ought to have been one of the most popular bands on the scene. They weren’t though, and now they’re no longer together.
Like everybody else in popular music, they sang often about romance and its entanglements, but there’s always something unusually poignant about FOW’s “relationship” songs. You won’t find many about the unmitigated joy of first love, or the rush of infatuation. It always seems to be about going separate ways, doubts, regrets, unrequited feelings, anything but boy meets girl and happily ever after.
A few of them, like Kid Gloves, involve one lover’s urge to get out of New York City, the light, noise and pressures of the Big Apple standing in metaphorically for the overwhelming emotions that nobody wants to confront. In that song we’re presented with a guy who doesn’t want to be treated like damaged goods any more – or is he just afraid that she can see right through him and knows that indeed, he is damaged goods? Or is he more frustrated at how she handles him with such reticent care that he can’t really talk to her about anything that smacks of honest emotion? Either way, it seems, time to bail out.
Here is what I have found
New York just gets me down
When the going got tough
I got a bus ticket
back to my home town
All the way there I dreamed
flesh wrapped in velveteen
And the road wrapped around me
The long lonely highway
gulped down by a Greyhound
Not exactly moon / June / spoon. Such lovely music, the cello, the piano, the slow swinging cadence of the verses, ach! I love it!
No Better Place is almost the flip side of the same story, with the narrator now being the one left behind in NYC, wondering what’s so great about this other place where his girlfriend would apparently rather be. Of course, what’s so great about it is that he’s not there, a thought that one does best to suppress at such times. Again with the fabulous melody and gorgeous melancholy of the sentiments – these are lyrics that really sting:
Is that supposed to be your poker face
or was someone run over by a train?
From the C Train to the shiny tower
kicked around ’til happy hour found you
where you could drink
that smirk right off your face
The bourbon sits inside me
right now I am a puppet in its sway
And it may be the whiskey talking
but the whiskey says I miss you every day
So I taxi to an all night party
park me in the corner in an old chair
Sip my drink and stare off into space
Now she’s leaving New York
for no better place
…and most moving, this little vignette in the middle eight, the narrator looking through his transparent image reflected in a shop window and feeling every bit as insubstantial as his ghostly mirror-self:
Here is your reflection in a building uptown
a ghost inside some Madison Avenue display
Like water under bridges you’re slowly passing by
as you sail between the rooftops and the sky
This hits me right in the sweet spot.
I sure do miss them.