OUT-OF-STATE PLATES Fountains of Wayne
James Thurber once said that what he strove for most in his humor pieces was a "tossed-off quality."
Songwriting duo Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, leaders of the group Fountains of Wayne, have a similar studied casualness in their good-humored, catchy three-minute songs. They're so proficient at this popsmithery that over three albums, there hasn't been a single tune you could call a clunker. From brilliant singles like "Radiation Vibe" and "Stacey's Mom" to poignant album tracks such as "Sick Day" and "Hat and Feet," they always get it right.
And as Out-of-State Plates shows, they also have the kind of musical leftovers that most bands would be proud to call a main course. A double CD-set, it culls the best of their B-sides, covers, holiday songs and live tracks into a kind of White Album smorgasbord.
A good example of their offhand brilliance is "Karpet King," a portrait of a New Jersey discount rug merchant (many FOW songs are set in Jersey). It opens with this evocative couplet: "Old sunglasses and a wandering eye / He looks like he's wearing a cheap disguise but it's real." The song manages to be funny and touching at the same time, a Collingwood-Schlesinger specialty. It's got a killer chorus. And somehow, it sounds like it was dashed off. Elsewhere, there are dark character studies ("Comedienne"), silly character studies ("California Sex Lawyer"), and songs about drugs ("Elevator Up") and break-ups ("Small Favors") and air force heroes (the poignant "Imperia").
They reveal their influences in their eclectic choice of covers--Bacharach & David ("Trains and Boats and Planes"), ELO ("Can't Get It Out of My Head"), Jackson Browne ("These Days"), Aztec Camera ("Killermont Street"), and Britney Spears (a sweaty, slowed-down version of "Baby, One More Time").
There are also two new songs, "Maureen" and "The Girl I Can't Forget"--both of them punky and tuneful as hell. The latter encapsulates everything that's great about FOW--a suburban love story (NJ, undoubtedly), told by a self-effacing narrator, a lyric full of well-placed details and inner rhymes married to classic pop chord changes and harmonies. And the whole thing sounds tossed-off.
In the album liner notes, Collingwood and Schlesinger write, "Please forgive the length of this compilation but this stuff was taking up a lot of space and we had to put it all somewhere. Enjoy in moderation."
Forgive me if I ignore that last request. Bill DeMain