In the years before the tuneful “Stacy’s Mom” seared them into the subconscious of music fans as one hit wonders, Fountains of Wayne were a band enjoying medium-sized success, with a string of modestly charting power pop singles. A self titled debut album charted in the UK in 1996, albeit way outside a top 40 that was clogged full of Britpop, but it promised much for the future. The follow up was 1999’s Utopia Parkway, whose singles again charted modestly, but whose chart performance would indicate that cult status that Fountains of Wayne would only briefly escape thanks to their freak hit single.
Like much power pop of the 90s, Fountains of Wayne owed much of their sound to a fully embraced influence of The Cars, and this was on full display on Utopia Parkway. So far, so Weezer. Or Jellyfish. Or Umajets. Opening with a title track which balances The Cars with a debt to They Might Be Giants at their most guitar-toting, there’s not even an attempt to mask that Utopia Parkway is going to be a shameless guitar pop album. This is underlined by the album’s second song “Red Dragon Tattoo”, a tune which hinted that the songwriting team of Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood just might have heard the odd Big Star number, as well as a fair slab of early 80s pop-rock. There is not even a feint whiff of the band attempting to come across as cool, just a four piece that had this power pop thing absolutely nailed down, a fact that is incontrovertible given when you are presented with the evidence of third track, “Denise”. As opening power-pop triumvirates go, Utopia Parkway has easily one of the best.
Utopia Parkway drops a gear with “Hat and Feet”, where the pace is reduced a little, allowing for a little bit more instrumental subtlety, and ticking the box for dynamic diversity in a relatively definitive manner. Oh, and just to remind you that Fountains of Wayne were both shamelessly power pop and seeped in American suburban culture, the next track is “The Valley of Malls”. Yeah, there might have been a reason that pre-millennium Brits were left scratching their heads at Utopia Parkway…
“Troubled Times” despite its title, is audio sunshine, at least in terms of musical approach and arrangement, leading you to realise that there has been little in the way of grit or aggression on Utopia Parkway to that point. This is remedied by the big distorted guitar sound of “Go, Hippie”, and is only slightly lessened when the vocal harmonies come in for the chorus. It’s easily the heaviest sounding song on the album so far, and reminds you that even when you factor in their feel good power pop approach Fountains of Wayne have it in them to be an all out rock band when they put their minds to it.
The slower paced “A Fine Day for a Parade” is Utopia Parkway’s longest song at a not-exactly-dragged-out four and a quarter minutes, but it’s still a shame that it’s the most disposable number on the album so far, especially given the band’s economic approach to not only their individual songs, but the whole album. There’s little in the way of wasted energy or momentum on Utopia Parkway, but most of it is in the sluggish “A Fine Day for a Parade”. “Amity Gardens” does its best to make up for lost momentum, but it takes “Laser Show” to get the album properly back on track.
“Lost in Space” sees a return of the big distorted guitars, and is done and dusted in a no-sodding about two minutes twenty, proving that Fountains of Wayne are specialists in delivering all a song needs to deliver with absolute minimum of fuss. It contrasts well with “Prom Theme”, which is the first song on Utopia Parkway where the piano is brought to the fore, the addition of orchestrations makes for a rather syrupy, even schmaltzy sound, but hell, that’s the damn point of the song, and the fact that that’s how it made you feel is a testament to Collingwood and Schlessinger knowing how to pull the strings of the listener not only as songwriters and arrangers, but as producers as well.
“It Must Be Summer” is a return to the Big Star-indebted shameless pop behind a curtain of guitar sound, and by this time there’s no argument about whether Fountains of Wayne are one of the great power pop bands, because there is all the evidence on Utopia Parkway alone to confirm that they absolutely are.
Closing number “The Senator’s Daughter” closes the album with Fountains of Wayne once again dropping a gear. It’s a nice enough song, but it’s just a shame that Utopia Parkway doesn’t close with a rousing closing number which leaves the listener with a final flourish with what the band do best. Hell, it wouldn’t even have had to be an original number either, as the band would release a cobweb-eliminating cover of The Kinks’ “Better Things” before their next album was released.
Is Utopia Parkway the best Fountains of Wayne album? I don’t know. But I know I’m going to enjoy finding out.