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Fountains only intermittently sparkling
on 17 July 2005
Fountains of Wayne's gently mocking suburban power-pop is a thing to be cherished. Invidious comparisons with Weezer, Semisonic, Ben Folds (with or without his Five) and a raft of US geek-rock also-rans don't change a thing: for three albums Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger have tapped into a seemingly inexhaustible seam of three-minute guitar pop gold and left the opposition standing. These guys can't write a song without at least one irresistibly catchy guitar line, smart turn of phrase or thrilling harmony in it: their lyrics are miniature small-town soap operas with a trademark mordant wit and ingenuity which, to my mind, puts them up there with Ray Davies, Neil Finn and Difford and Tilbrook at their very best. So with this grab-bag of B-sides and rarities they have much to live up to.
It's not just Phill Jupitus who said it, it's been mentioned in just about every review of this I've seen that this band's outtakes are far better than stuff on most people's proper albums. That said, if you're expecting another Fountains of Wayne classic here, you'll be slightly disappointed. As with so many double albums, there is a great single album in here fighting to get out.
I've been a huge Fountains of Wayne fan from back in Radiation Vibe days, but a lot of this was new to me. There are some genuine gems: a new, archetypal, loser-strikes-lucky tale The Girl I Can't Forget, their cracking Oasis pastiche Elevator Up, the poignant song of love gone sour Kid Gloves and the Simon and Garfunkel-ish Places. Plus, if you're already looking forward to the festive season, skip their novelty hit I Want an Alien for Christmas (written for Hanson, who should really have taken it) and listen to the hilarious flipside The Man in the Santa Suit instead.
There are a few more top-notch tunes, then there's the rest. Even a half-decent Fountains of Wayne song is still a treat, but there's some quality control missing here. There are a few too many half-finished ideas knocked off between studio sessions, and most of the cover versions could have stayed in the vaults. Apart from a fine rendition of Aztec Camera's Killermont Street they're all pretty unremarkable, and I can't imagine how their plodding interpretation of Britney's ... Baby One More Time would have broadened their fanbase one iota had it been granted a single release in 1999 as intended. Travis did the song much better, and that was as a joke.
To sum up, it's still good, but not that good. If you only know Fountains of Wayne from Stacy's Mom, don't look on Out of State Plates as representative. If you want to find out what this great American pop band are truly capable of, go and buy a copy of Utopia Parkway and listen to it on repeat like I did. Then buy the other two albums. And only then go out and buy this.