Not content to let their pop passions go unloved by the masses, Loser City staff have banded together to provide Pop Rehabilitation to the works that have been unjustly maligned and forgotten. This week, Johnson Hagood makes the case for the critical reexamination of Fountains of Wayne, one of the few power pop bands who managed to land commercial success with their inescapable summer jam “Stacy’s Mom,” a track that inadvertently also turned them into a one hit wonder punchline in the process despite the greatness of Welcome Interstate Managers, the album that birthed it (though the band does have Katy Perry on their side).
Everyone knows exactly one song by Fountains of Wayne: “Stacy’s Mom,” the clever, adolescent daydream about a mom who’s really “got it going on.” It’s a sweet, summery jam and it’s easy to see how it gained so much traction, despite the idiosyncratic vocals and straightforward power-pop melody. Many, even among those who enjoyed the song, found it at least partly obnoxious, in the way that so many “catchy” songs are. But even though the song is instantly recognizable to most, many who recognize it still can’t name the group who soundtracked that little slice of their life. Those who can name the band might even recall another single from the album, “Mexican Wine,” a hypnotic, surreal mantra of love and futility in the modern world. Ask anyone to name the album, though? Not a chance.
In a way, it might seem disingenuous to call the album “underrated,” as it achieved both critical and commercial success upon release in 2003, but nevertheless, the reputation of the album and the group that recorded it seems to fall squarely into the category of one-hit-wonder. Though Fountains have, admittedly, not had a particularly consistent career, the rest of the album that featured “Stacy’s Mom,” titled Welcome Interstate Managers, is a profoundly empathetic, hilarious, and diverse record that, in another life, could easily have attained status as an indie-cult record that everyone’s always saying “you might not have heard of.”
Before you even press play, the title of the album sets the tone for the entire project; a pitch-perfect evocation of the moment in which you suddenly encounter an entire universe of experience to which you were previously oblivious. It’s an exercise in imagination and empathy in which the listener inhabits lives entirely dissimilar to her own. Welcome Interstate Managers is a storytelling record, each track pulling a moment out of someone’s life and commemorating their thoughts and feelings, with a humorous yet sincere tone that a good number of lauded songwriters could stand to take a lesson from. The lyrics are presented mostly in first-person by people ranging from alcoholic New York salesmen to vagrant hotel workers finding fleeting love as they drift from town to town. Each track brings its subject into startling, almost eerie, focus, in the way that a stranger’s life will occasionally seem to jump out to you from the milieu.
A number of stand-out tracks quickly overshadow the catchiness of the record’s lead single with their surprising complexity and staying power. “Bright Future In Sales,” “Hackensack,” “No Better Place,” and the oddball “Hung Up On You” chronicle the lives of the now-typical floundering, permanently adolescent male adrift in the impotence of modern life, but with a compassion and warmth that lend their aimlessness an almost heroic dimension; we long to see them overcome their paralysis and slay the giants obstructing their paths. “Little Red Light,” in particular, seems almost prophetic now, effectively sending up the anxiety of a life spent waiting on emails, texts, and various “little red light[s] not blinking.”
It’s not all sad-sack loners, though, “Valley Winter Song” and “Hey Julie” are just about as fine a pair of pop-inflected love songs as you could possibly ask for, reminding us that amidst all the alienation and difficulty of life, love really can provide a sacred refuge from the world. “All Kinds of Time” does as much, in four and a half minutes, to justify its “football as a metaphor of life” premise as Friday Night Lights did with five seasons and a movie. With the rollicking antics of “Bought For A Song,” Fountains of Wayne mine their own misadventures as touring musicians for surprisingly relatable moments; “excuse me, I’m weaving as fast as I can.” No matter your perspective, the diversity of lives represented in Welcome Interstate Managers is likely to reflect your own, probably in ways that will continue to occur to you long after your first few listens.
This is not to say that the album is without flaws. A few tracks lag behind the others, both in terms of musical energy and originality (not the album’s strong suit in the first place). “Fire Island” meanders through an amalgamated and non-specific scene of adolescent revelry to no apparent effect, while the Beatles-inspired psychedelia of “Supercollider” hews a little too close to its source material to be very interesting in its own right. In general, if you’re not sold on the idea of an indie-pop act who wear their musical influences on their sleeve, you might not ever get past the sound of the record in order to enjoy the lyrics. In many ways, though, their hyper-referential lyrics and pop-culture pastiche predicted the sound of music moving into the second decade of the new millenia.
The best comparison I can come up with, and one which continues to enjoy a large degree of indie-cred, is Weezer’s debut Blue Album. Though Fountains Of Wayne, not unlike their sweater-wearing counterparts, have largely failed to innovate or expand on the content and sound of their best record (no disrespect to Ben Affleck Pinkerton), with subsequent albums sounding frustratingly like a series of b-side collections from this one, Welcome Interstate Managers still has the power to surprise and move me, more than a decade after its release. The people who inhabit these tracks and the places they find themselves are at once exaggerated and deeply relatable, humorous and affectingly sincere, painfully dated and somehow timeless all the same.
Johnson Hagood is an aimless millennial living in Southern California, where he did not grow up, despite being a long-hair and everything. You can follow him on instagram @ants_in_my_eyes where he quotes Kanye West and brags about how much money he wastes on expensive craft beer.