By John M. Borack
Fountains of Wayne was one of those ultra-rare acts that never recorded or released a bad song. With lyrics dealing with everything from drunken salesmen, inattentive waitresses, sexy moms and bad traffic to feeding chocolate to dogs, mean little men with rub on tans, Metallica and Cracker Barrel, listeners were regularly pinned to the mat by some of the most pointed, literate (and often hilarious) character studies since Paul McCartney’s heyday (or at least since Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” or “Vanity Faire”). The band’s well-crafted lyrics were always buttressed by first-rate melodies and sharp, inventive instrumentation, resulting in sheer pop-rock bliss spread evenly throughout six uniformly excellent albums released between 1996 and 2011.
Sadly, one of the architects of FoW’s signature sound was silenced on April 1, as songwriter/bassist/producer Adam Schlesinger passed away due to complications caused by COVID-19. He was 52.
While Schlesinger was best known for his work with Fountains of Wayne (and their one-off 2003 hit “Stacy’s Mom”), he was something of a modern (and highly decorated) renaissance man: he penned the Oscar-nominated title track to Tom Hanks' well-received 1996 film That Thing You Do!, won three Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, and was nominated for two Tony Awards. He also played with bands such as Ivy, Tinted Windows and Fever High, worked in stage and television, and produced and wrote songs for numerous artists, including the Monkees.
But it’s Schlesinger’s oeuvre with Fountains of Wayne, created with songwriting partner/lead vocalist Chris Collingwood, for which he’ll no doubt be most fondly remembered. To that end, here are 10 great examples of the musical magic Schlesinger created with Collingwood, guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young. In no particular order:
“Stacy’s Mom” (from Welcome Interstate Managers, 2003) - When I questioned Schlesinger in 2007 as to why Welcome Interstate Managers was more commercially successful than the band’s previous releases, he pointed to the Buddy Holly meets The Cars hookiness of “Stacy’s Mom”: “Well, the simple answer for that is Rachel Hunter [the model who portrayed Stacy’s mom in the song’s video]. I think we had a great single with a great video and it was one of those magic moments where luck and timing came together for us.” Indeed.
“Radiation Vibe” (from Fountains of Wayne, 1996) – The first (and most commercially successful) single of the four that were excised from FoW’s debut album, “Radiation Vibe” chugs along quite nicely, with a set of lyrics that don’t quite make perfect sense, but with a chorus that soars into the stratosphere.
“I-95” (from Traffic and Weather, 2007) – A heartfelt, lyrically vivid ballad about traveling a nine-hour stretch to visit a lover (“I’ll do it til the day that I die”), it’s perhaps the warmest, prettiest tune the band ever committed to tape.
“Red Dragon Tattoo” (from Utopia Parkway, 1999) – A fine example of Schlesinger/Collingwood songcraft, the upbeat “RDT” has a sublime melody, hilariously cheeky lyrics (“…now I look a little more like that guy from Korn”) and a glorious synth solo.
“Mexican Wine” (from Welcome Interstate Managers, 2003) - “He was killed in a cellular phone explosion,” intones Collingwood as the leadoff track from FoW’s third long-player kicks off. This startling pronouncement is quickly followed by a gently tinkling harpsichord, which is soon chased out by monster rock guitars riffing like mad. All this frivolity should be clue number one that this is not some garden variety power pop combo.
“Laser Show” (from Utopia Parkway, 1999) – “We’re gonna space out to our favorite tunes/we’re going straight to the dark side of the moon,” sings Collingwood as the band offers up a punchy homage to a time honored teenage ritual of the ‘70s and ‘80s—visiting the planetarium for a bit of star gazing and rock.
“I’ve Got a Flair” (from Fountains of Wayne, 1996) – Fueled by a circular keyboard riff, insistent guitars and pounding drums, “Flair” is a perfect little popsong. Nice background vocals from Schlesinger add to the fun.
“Little Red Light” (from Welcome Interstate Managers , 2003) – An eminently tuneful power pop number with a touch of vocal grit courtesy of Collingwood and one of several in FoW’s catalog that details the plight of the overworked, overstressed working man. In 2015, Schlesinger described to me the genesis of what many consider the band’s finest hour: “We made Welcome Interstate Managers at a time when we weren't sure if the band was even gonna continue. We had already been around for six or seven years, made two records that didn't sell too well, and had been dropped by Atlantic Records. When Managers was finally released, it became our biggest selling record by far and we got a ‘Best New Artist’ Grammy nomination, which we found particularly amusing.”
“Hate to See You Like This” (from Sky Full of Holes, 2011) – From the band’s swansong comes this sweet, almost tender musical pep talk to a friend who is going through a rough patch. The lyrics have a bit of the band’s trademark witty edge to them, though: "Let's get your phone reconnected/Let's get this room disinfected/Come on, give me a kiss/I hate to see you like this.”
“Survival Car” (from Fountains of Wayne, 1996) – This brief little ditty (just two-minutes in length) cruises along with an instrumental urgency that borders on punky and some cool “ooh la la” backing vox on the second verse. Always a live favorite, and one the band usually took on at warp speed.