Fountains of Wayne, the lawn ornament store in Wayne, N.J., that was seen in the opening credits of "The Sopranos," finally shut its doors two summers ago. Fortunately, there's no closure in sight for the other, even better-known Fountains of Wayne, the rock & roll quartet that's been one of America's greatest bands since its 1996 debut.
But mellowing does seem to be in the cards, after a four-year layoff. Although band leaders Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger continue to write some of the hookiest and most clever material of the modern age, there's less fun and more ruefulness in "Sky Full of Holes," the group's fifth album.
It may be a moot point that the new effort is FOW's least airplay-friendly, since neither radio nor MTV would likely play this kind of stuff anymore even if the group did manage to come up with a "Stacy's Mom II." But fans who prefer an abundance of power in their power-pop may worry about what the lopsided spunk-to-sadness ratio portends for the beloved band.
It'd be a mistake to only celebrate Fountains of Wayne's drollery, anyway. Some of their best songs have set the wit aside for wistfulness, like "All Kinds of Time," the slowest and ironically saddest song ever to be adopted for an NFL commercial. On the new album, sure enough, the finest track is "Action Hero," the sorrowful tale of a middle-aged guy whose business and family stress are getting the best of his health -- even though, in his arrested-youth daydreams, he's still costuming up and saving the world.
There are still up-tempo comic highlights here, mostly concentrated in the album's first half. The single "Richie and Ruben" warns about an alliterative pair of serial business owners who manage to lose all their friends' investments moving from one failed retail or restaurant venture to another. "Eleven hundred bucks for a ripped-up shirt/That came pre-stained with bleach and black dirt/Seemed just a little bit too steep to me-ee-ee," Collingwood sings, in a typically dry, matter-of-fact tone that makes little distinguishment between mundane narrative details and deep emotions.
Wryness gets traded in for ruefulness in most of the album's second half, which forsakes the band's trademark quirky narratives for more impressionistic, reflective material. "You save your money for a hole in the ground, a black car and a long row of roses," the band sings in "Workingman's Hands," which seems almost designed to be the antithesis of the working-class celebrations that country music specializes in.
"Hate to See You Like This" splits the difference between cheer and depression, being a call to a despondent friend to break out of her funk. At least there's some wit to her depression: "Let's get your phone reconnected/Let's get this room disinfected…"
Even a second-tier Fountains of Wayne album beats just about anything else 21st century rock has to offer. But "Hate to See You Like This" might also describe the reaction of some FOW fanatics who'll long for the more spirited days of "Welcome Interstate Managers," their 2003 masterpiece.
Maybe Schlesinger was just saving his more upbeat songs for side projects like the band Tinted Windows or his musical theater projects. Surely, after this four-year layoff, it's Fountains of Wayne's characters that are so resigned, not the members themselves, and the more laid-back feel is a natural phase, not part of a slow slide toward the fate of the band's namesake store. Right?