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Sky Full of Holes
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Unlike the iconic Ft. Wayne NJ garden store that inspired its name, Fountains of Wayne are still very much open for business. In fact, their new album Sky Full of Holes sounds like a whole new beginning for the band and its powerhouse songwriting duo Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger. Called, ''full-fledged art heroes'' by The Dean of Rock Critics Robert Christgau, FOW continue their reign as pop music masters, while Collingwood and Schlesinger also explore new frontiers within their unique respective songwriting aesthetics. Ranging from high-energy power pop to intimate, acoustic-driven ballads, Sky Full of Holes tracks ''The Summer Place'' and ''Richie And Ruben'' showcase the band's renowned storytelling abilities and flair for creating memorable characters; elsewhere, the album takes a more impressionistic approach, as in the shimmering ''Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart'' and the elegiac ''Cemetery Guns.'' Sky Full of Holes is Fountains' most successful distillation of their musical maxims to date, but it's also a whole hell of a lot of fun.
Wise guys with flashes of empathy: that's Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, who collaborate in Fountains of Wayne. Since 1996 they have been writing finely observed, neatly rhymed character studies set to sleekly produced pop-rock.
They take their time. ''Sky Full of Holes,'' the fifth studio album by Fountains of Wayne, is their first since 2007, and the songs cut back on smirking. The album title comes from a line imagining how a 21-gun salute leaves a ''sky full of holes'' at a military funeral, in a kindly song called ''Cemetery Guns,'' a march accented by snare-drum rolls.
''Action Hero'' starts out describing a Walter Mitty-like family man on an unglamorous dinner out with the kids at ''a small Vietnamese on East 11th Street,'' and the chiming, heroic music sounds like easy irony. Then it turns out the man is getting bad news from his hospital tests, and his fantasies about ''racing against time'' to save the world turn poignant.
There's comedy too. Perpetually deluded hipster entrepreneurs ''Richie and Ruben'' invest in a boutique called Debris that for some reason can't sell a ripped, stained $1,100 T-shirt. In ''Acela,'' a bored guy riding to Boston realizes his girlfriend isn't meeting him on the train after all: ''All alone on the Acela/Tell me baby where the hell are you?'' There's a happier ending in ''Radio Bar''; after hanging out nightly at a bar where he's ''sinking lower and lower,'' the narrator suddenly meets a girl who asks, ''Why don't we go somewhere?'' That must be why there were peppy horns and strings all along.
Fountains of Wayne's music has its heart in the 1970's of the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Stealers Wheel and Nick Lowe, full of strummed acoustic and electric guitars, repeated octaves on the piano and wordless vocal-harmony choruses. Mr. Collingwood's nasal lead vocals can't help sounding twerpy and a little sarcastic.
But this album warms up to its characters. In ''Hate to See You Like This,'' which holds some echoes of ''Born to Run,'' the singer tries to revitalize a girl who sounds clinically depressed or worse. And even if Mr. Collingwood and Mr. Schlesinger can't resist a couplet as neat as ''Let's get your phone reconnected/Let's get this room disinfected,'' it also sounds as if they care about the people. --Jon Pareles
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The band has dabbled in country and folky sounds in the past -- most notably on "Valley Winter Song" and "Hung Up On You" from their 2003 commercial breakthrough 'Welcome Interstate Managers,' "Fire in the Canyon" and "Seatbacks and Traytables" from 'Traffic & Weather,' and a few rarities like their covers of Ricky Nelson's "Today's Teardrops" and Jackson Browne's "These Days" (as well as spare originals like "Imperia" and "Places") -- but they seem to be doing a lot more of it here. I especially notice it on "Workingman's Hands" (a mostly respectful portrait, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor: "Now your Uncle John walked a mile to school in a storm / And it was uphill both ways"), the sweet "A Road Song," the gorgeous "Firelight Waltz," and the haunting "Cemetery Guns"; plus, the chugging, mid-tempo "Acela," about a lovelorn boozer on a train, has an almost bluesy sound; and even the hilarious "Richie and Ruben" and the brassy, nostalgic "Radio Bar" are noticeably less reliant on guitar crunch and jangle than most of the band's other up-tempo numbers, though no less hooky.
Of course, the band's signature power-pop can still be found here, especially on the opening track "The Summer Place," "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart," the psychedelic "Cold Comfort Flowers," the breezy summer anthem "A Dip in the Ocean," the urgent choruses of "Action Hero," and even the slow-burn ballad "Hate to See You Like This."
The other thing that strikes me is how the lyrics -- by bassist Adam Schlesinger and guitarist/lead singer Chris Collingwood -- seem a little darker and more mature than usual. The pair has long had a penchant for clever character sketches and portraits of day-to-day life (growing up in suburban NY and New Jersey on 1999's 'Utopia Parkway,' personal and professional woes of nine-to-fivers on 'Welcome Interstate Managers,' etc.) peppered with down-to-earth, matter-of-fact references to pop culture and brand names. 'Sky Full of Holes' has more of the same, but with gentler humor and more sympathy: In "Richie and Ruben," no matter how misguided the wannabe-entrepreneur title characters may be, the satire's real target is the first-person narrator who has kept lending them money despite the total lack of return on his investments; "Hate to See You Like This," although similar to the self-destructive-girl ode "She's Got A Problem" (from the band's 1996 self-titled debut), finds a better balance between mild ribbing and tender affection as its narrator nudges a female friend out of a deep depression ("You can't just watch infomercials forever / If you need a hand, why don't you take mine?"); "A Road Song," like the previous album's "Hotel Majestic," deals with the touring-musician life in witty detail, but in a much less complaining tone as its narrator keeps in touch with a loved one back home; and "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart" opens with a funny image ("Staring at the sun with no pants on") only to give way to more poetic observations ("Melancholy comes like a robin at your window"). A couple of character studies find the band addressing middle-age concerns: In "The Summer Place," a 40-year-old woman reflects on her teenage fears and humiliations when she visits her parents' old vacation home; and in "Action Hero," which opens with a harried family man on a mundane outing ("[H]is wife begins to sneeze / And his son is throwing peas and eating with his feet"), the protagonist's seemingly silly daydreams turn extra poignant (especially the notion of "racing against time") when he finds himself confronted with heart trouble. Most striking of all is the closing track, "Cemetery Guns," a touchingly understated portrait of a military funeral.
So, where would I say this stands among FOW's body of work? I wouldn't call it a departure, so much as simply a natural progression in the band's growth -- from the sweet-and-crunchy nice-guy rock of their debut, to the punchier and more cohesive 'Utopia Parkway' (still my favorite album of theirs), to the more ambitious and eclectic 'Welcome Interstate Managers' (with 'Traffic & Weather' something of an artistic step backwards, albeit a fun one). 'Sky Full of Holes' is probably not the first FOW CD I would recommend to beginning fans, but longtime fans may find it rewarding.
My current favorite song on this album is "A Road Song". "Perfect" is a term used too often, but I'd say that this song is "nearly perfect". The vocals and music blend together so effortlessly that the listener will easily sense the mood intended by Fountains of Wayne. Their music has been described as "power pop". Maybe it is because they are able to include in their lyrics "Cracker Barrel", "Will Ferrell", and "Steve Perry". The other songs should satisfy the most ardent Fountain of Wayne fans. Hopefully this album will introduce this talented band to new listeners.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Fountains of Wayne can do no wrong.
It's a shame that this might be their last album.