Fountains of Wayne | Utopia Parkway (Atlantic, 1999)
by Alan Haber
If Frank Capra had made a movie based on the songs populating Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway album, he might have called it It’s a Mundane Life. For 14 songs, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood explore the normal, everyday concerns of a population of everyday people, giving life to everyday acts of observation.
A well-imagined tour de force, Utopia Parkway chronicles the dreams of a hopeful musician (the title song), of momentary escape to the stars (“Laser Show”), of the boy who loves an airhead (“Lost in Space”), of mall explorers and bargain hunters (“The Valley of Malls”), of the clueless throwbacks to a spacier time (“Go, Hippie”).
Working both left and right of a decidedly pure pop center, and always with an eye on crafty turns of phrase and musical verbiage, Schlesinger and Collingwood pay attention to the details, whether they’re delivering a ’90s version of a Warner Brothers cartoon (“Hat and Feet”) or getting inside the head of a clueless guy who’s trying to get the girl (“Red Dragon Tattoo”).
The hopeful hero of “Red Dragon Tattoo” is a nebbishy boy whose plan to convince a girl to declare her love for him comprises a drunken trip to a tattoo parlor and a proud proclamation that, after being inked, he looks “a little more like that guy from KorN.” If he’s “fit to be dyed,” he wonders to the girl “Am I fit to have you.”
The song’s wordplay swings for the fences always. At the tattoo parlor, the boy observes his surroundings: “I hear the man say you want to see the others/A mermaid and a heart that says mother/But I don’t know from maritime/And I never did hard time,” he sings, offering a snapshot of his experience. “I brought a .38 Special CD collection/Some Bactine to prevent infection/And in case I get queasy/A photo of Easy Rider,” he continues, rattling off his ideas of protection.
The world-class lover narrating the sprightly “Denise” pines for the girl, but his concept of her being hardly comes to grips with what makes her attractive in the first place. Or does it? “I heard she used to be married/She listens to Puff Daddy/She works at Liberty Travel/She got a heart made of gravel,” he tells us, not quite getting to the heart of what makes Denise tick and puts his heart into flutter mode.
Another clueless mope sees himself reduced to the bare minimum and not necessarily the bare essentials in “Hat and Feet.” Dumped by his girl, he tries to run, only to be reduced to a chapeau and a pair of limbs. The couple drawn in the heartbreaking “Troubled Times” have slipped through each other’s fingers. “The way the days and hours pass you’ll never understand/Falling like rain through your hands,” the narrator observes. Yet, they might make it through after all, however tenuously: “Maybe one day soon/It’ll all come out/How you dream about each other sometimes/With a memory of/How you once gave up/But you made it through the troubled times.”
The songs on Utopia Parkway together constitute the script for a gripping reality show, delivered with customary verve by Fountains of Wayne. In “Prom Theme,” Schlesinger and Collingwood accurately, and painfully, present a wistful snapshot of the momentary highs of the ubiquitous prom night experience. “The moment soon will pass,” Collingwood sings. “It’s all downhill from there.” But the kids will have their moment before night passes into day and the real world milieu sets in. “But tonight we’ll reach for the stars/We’ll rent expensive cars/And dream our dreams/Of a perfect night.”
The art of observation, especially in a three-minute pop song, can be a tricky proposition, but in the hands of Schlesinger and Collingwood, it’s the definition of truth. They may be dealing with the lesser lights living on Utopia Parkway and elsewhere across this great land, but they harbor great affection for them. They don’t judge their subjects; they report on their movements and give them room to breathe. Sometimes, their characters don’t have to put words together in a sentence. Sometimes, in fact, all they have to do is mutter “Sha la la la la la,” as does the lost-in-love target in the wistful “The Senator’s Daughter.”
Dressing their colorful songs with lovely melodies and tried-and-true song constructs, Schlesinger and Collingwood tell the stories of our lives in three-minute frozen moments in time. “I got it made, I got it down,” the future big time rock star sings in “Utopia Parkway.” Schlesinger and Collingwood, working with powers far beyond those of mortal songwriters and performers, have done the same, and saved humanity in the process.
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