Pure Pop Radio’s Hall of Fame Inducts Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway (Atlantic, 1999)

hall of fame
By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio
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fountains of wayne utopia parkwayWhat Is It?
Pure Pop Radio’s Hall of Fame celebrates unparalleled work in the field of melodic pop music. All kinds of melodic pop are eligible for induction, from soft-pop to power-pop and all points in-between. Country-pop, bubblegum, art-pop and the like are welcome. Singles, EPs, and albums are eligible from the 1960s to today. The only caveat is an inductee must emphasize melody above all else.

Our First Inductee:
Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway (Atlantic, 1999)

Our first inductee is an album that basically drew the blueprint for all melodic pop albums that followed it. Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway’s 14 songs, chiming with lovely, catchy melodies, lots of guitars, sumptuous singing, et al., are populated by all sorts of eclectic characters, whose captivating stories are told in the catchiest of musical terms. The bar is set high; each of these songs aims for lyrical and melodic excellence and hits the bullseye every time.

A concept album of sorts, Utopia Parkway can be seen as a snapshot of life in the five boroughs of New York, or in the areas surrounding your town if you prefer, because, really, the themes pursued within this album are fairly universal, even as some of the songs refer to actual living, breathing landmarks and concern people types whom you and I might well know.

Liberty Travel; Coney Island; the Hayden Planetarium; the Long Island Expressway, or as it’s better known, the L.I.E., or as it’s even better known, The World’s Largest Parking Lot; the Jersey Shore; and Long Island Sound get name-checked along the musical journey down and around Utopia Parkway. And then there are the people that populate the area.

Back cover of Utopia Parkway booklet

Back cover of Utopia Parkway booklet

Under the Hood
Take the title song, which takes place on Utopia Parkway, a big area in Queens, New York. The song tells the story of an underachiever who’s “…never turned from boy to man.” The narrator is a budding music star who pledges to staple fliers everywhere to get his “name in front of everyone.” In the end, though, he admits that “they’ll never know what hit them when” he’s “gone.”

The similarly underachieving, clueless-in-love sap of the classic “Red Dragon Tattoo” takes listeners on a virtual tour of his stated objective: to get the girl. He boasts about getting “engraved,” but only after getting drunk. He pines to get a Red Dragon Tattoo slapped on his person, which he believes ought to do the trick. In fact, he seems convinced of it, kinda-sorta, although he does question his viability: “I’m fit to be dyed/Am I fit to have you.”

The Red Dragon Tattoo is going to transform this guy into an alluring figure. “Will you stop pretending I’ve never been born/Now I look a little more like that guy from KorN,” he sings to his intended. “If you came a little bit closer/You’d see it isn’t painted on.” And, by gum, it’s real!

Also real are the emotions felt and communicated by songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger. The subject of the heartfelt yet sad “Hat and Feet,” a Warner Bros. cartoon come to life, is reduced to being “a spot on the sidewalk/A mark on the street.” And he couldn’t bear to confront the issues at hand: “I started running when I saw it coming/It got faster and louder til I took a powder.”

The unflinchingly sad “Troubled Times” chronicles a relationship whose clock has run out, the end of which is at least guardedly copacetic (“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.” I cry while listening to this one all the time.

James and Jason, Kirk and Lars, in no particular order

James and Jason, Kirk and Lars, in no particular order

Hold the Gloom
All is not gloomy along Utopia Parkway, however. The kids barrelled into their parents’ car in the goofy “Laser Show” “come from Bridgeport, Westport, Darien/Down to the Hayden Planetarium,” where Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon would play as images were thrust upon the walls surrounding them. But these kids might be after bigger prey: “We’re gonna sit back, relax, watch the stars/James and Jason, Kirk and Lars,” they proclaim. And then it’s time to go home: “We’re gonna make our way cross the galaxy/And then we’ll head back home on the L.I.E.” If they can get out of the “parking lot,” that is.

I always thought the girl in the peppy “Lost in Space” was just a well-meaning hippie chick–a little off-center, perhaps. And that’s the way the lyrics portray her, but I always held a bit of caution, thinking that there might be more to her aloofness. A serious undercurrent to an otherwise playful song? Or could she possibly be a lovable pterodactyl or an alien from Mars? After all, according to the song, “…she walks the earth/But she’s not from the human race/She’s a pretty little thing but she’s lost/Yeah she’s lost in space…”

The happy, guitar-centric power pop number “It Must Be Summer” sounds like it’s a celebration of sun, surf and sand, but it’s really a jaunty lament of the girl that got–no, went–away. “…it must be summer/Cause I’m falling apart.”

The album closer, a somber number called “The Senator’s Daughter,” is all about the noise that permeates our conversations. All sorts of people go about their business, from teenage girls to soccer moms, and talk, talk, talk, without the messages getting through: “He say/Sha la la la la la/He say/Sha la la la la la.”

brilliant_mind_cs2A New Look
This isn’t the first time I’ve thought and written about Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway; it was the subject, on January 19, 2016, of the first entry in my I Love that Album! series (read it here to possibly get some more insight). Obviously, that wasn’t the end of my fascination with this incredible, topically dense album.

Albums such as Utopia Parkway demand your attention and pay off dividends. Through its songs, you learn a little bit more about life in general and, perhaps–just perhaps–a little bit more about your life. Of course, you could just tap your feet and play air guitar as the songs roll, but that would be shortchanging this album’s copious rewards.

Which is why this album–Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway–is the first melodic pop work to be inducted into Pure Pop Radio’s Hall of Fame.

The Deets

Fountains of Wayne/Utopia Parkway (Atlantic, 1999)

Personnel: Chris Collingwood, lead vocals, guitar, keyboards; Adam Schlesinger, vocals, bass, guitar, keyboards; Jody Porter, guitar, vocals; Brian Young, drums, percussion

The Songs:
1. Utopia Parkway
2. Red Dragon Tattoo
3. Denise
4. Hat and Feet
5. The Valley of Malls
6. Troubled Times
7. Go, Hippie
8. A Fine Day for a Parade
9. Amity Gardens
10. Laser Show
11. Lost in Space
12. Prom Theme
13. It Must Be Summer
14. The Senator’s Daughter

Producers: Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger

black box Where to Get It: Amazon, iTunes

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New on Pure Pop Radio 7.21.16

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alan 5 small Spins and Reviews | 7.21.16 | by Alan Haber

Cheerful ear worms for a Thursday…

brain circus use this jpeg instead of the other oneBrain Circus | Brain Circus Smashing collection of impossible-to-resist songs performed in grand style by ace songwriter and keyboard wizard Brian Curtis, late of the much-loved band the Oohs. Thirteen numbers in all, Brain Circus, performed entirely by Curtis, provides ample proof, as if any was needed, that this transplanted Virginian’s ability to craft striking, kenspeckle melodies working in concert with clever chord structures and vocal invention puts him at the top of his game. The gorgeous harmony vocals at the heart of the jangly “If You Only Knew” and the creatively-arranged mid-tempo ballad “Smile is a Thin Disguise” are but two examples of how good this album is, but the majestic, heartfelt love song “Finally Found the One” is the pearl here, a musical sculpture formed with smiles and tears and a whole lot of heart. You’ll detect essence of Beach Boys, Jellyfish and Queen, among other classic touchstones, but this is all Curtis and don’t you forget it.
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: “Forget All About It,” “I Don’t Want to Know,” “If You Only Knew,” “Keep My Hands to Yourself,” “Letter Bomb,” “No Secret,” “Smile is a Thing Disguise,” “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow,” and “Try to Ignore Me.”

fernando perdomo with legendFernando Perdomo | Voyeurs Los Angeles-based producer to the stars Perdomo stitches together a mix of songs sung and instrumentals played for a singularly immersive listening experience. Seventies-styled, catchy nugget “Stay With the Friends” invites clapping to the beat; the beautiful ballad “The One You Run To” wraps its loving arms around you. Instros “Sunday Afternoon” and “Waltz for Doug” are gorgeous and impeccably performed highlights. Much to admire and hug.
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: “Feels,” “Holding Back I Love Yous,” “Stay With the Friends,” “Home,” “Cruiser,” “Sunday Afternoon,” and “Waltz for Doug,” “The One You Run To.”

chris bolger no promisesChris Bolger | No Promises Recorded in New Jersey and seasoned with top flight performances from an array of special guest stars such as the Smithereens’ super drummer Dennis Diken, Graham Maby (Joe Jackson) and James Mastro (The Bongos), No Promises is a pop fan’s delight–13 catchy, melodic works like the upbeat “Easier,” kicking off with just a hint of the Kinks’ “Picture Book,” and the pop-rock workout “Geraldine.” The saxified rocker “Barbara Feldon,” a tribute to the actress who played Agent 99 on the classic television show Get Smart, is a joyous foot-stomping treat. Produced by Bolger, engineer/mixer Kostadin Kamcev and Diken. Terrific.
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: The entire album: “Atlantic City Expressway,” “Barbara Feldon,” “Easier,” “Everything,” “Geraldine,” “Learning to Paint,” “Maybe,” “No Promises,” “She might Look My Way,” “Ships,” “Souls Turn Blue,” “Tear that Cabin Down,” and “What’s it Got to Do With Me.”

alice bierhorst 5Alice Bierhorst | Now Entering Liberty Heights, The Vigil, All Shall Be Revealed, Oxygen New York City native and Pure Pop Radio favorite Bierhorst’s catalog is rich with releases highlighting her vibrant songs that paint lovely soundscapes. Now added to the playlist are songs from four more of the immensely-talented singer-songwriter’s 15 albums (her latest release, The Beacon, has been part of our playlist since this past March).
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: From 2000’s Now Entering Liberty Heights: the soulful, bluesy “Legendary Pillow” and the pretty ballad “Lovable.” From 2007’s The Vigil: “I Will Always Love You (When I’m Alone),” the driving “Thank You,” “Come Little Baby,” “Do You Dream” and the title track. From All Shall Be Revealed: the sumptuous, catchy “Airborne,” “Better Angels,” the lovely “Bright at the End of the Day,” “Farther to Go,” “Golden Hours,” the title track and “I Have Always Been Free.” And from Oxygen, “Not the One” and the title track.

look parkLook Park | “Aeroplane” Chris Collingwood’s new group project, which takes its name from the Frank Newhall Look Memorial Park, an actual municipal park in Northampton, Massachusetts, kicked off with this pre-album-release song, a breezy, Fountains of Wayne type of breezy construct. As catchy as any of Collingwood’s Fountains of Wayne songs, it bodes well for the full release, available tomorrow, July 22.
black box Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio.

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I Love that Album! #1: Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway (1999)

fountains of wayneFountains 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”).

red dragon tattooThe 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.”

fountains of wayne 2

Fountains of Wayne

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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Curry Cuts Path to the ’80s for Retro-riffic British Invasion Compilation

reign

(Win a copy of Here Comes the Reign Again: The Second British Invasion and a Reign t-shirt by filling in the form below. Be sure to type “Reign” in the Comments section. There is a quick turnaround on this contest: Entries must be received by tomorrow night, December 12, at midnight ET. The winner will be chosen on Saturday, December 13. Good luck!)

Producer Andrew Curry, who released his first compilation, Drink a Toast to Innocence: A Tribute to Lite Rock, in April of 2013, follows up in relatively short order with Here Comes the Reign Again: The Second British Invasion. While he’s billed as executive producer of Reign, Curry is better dubbed master curator, or perhaps more appropriately, caretaker of decades gone by.

Dipping this time into the musical waters flowing through the ’80s, Curry has assembled a sterling group of contemporary artists to pay tribute to and/or apply a new coat of paint on songs that were first released more than three decades ago. It is a testament to these songs–and, if Curry knows anything, he knows that the song is job one–that they retain their fortitude so long after first being heard.

To that end, Fountains of Wayne frontman Chris Collingwood turns in a spirited, lovingly rendered version of the Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town,” supported by luscious background vocals from Phillip Price and Flora Reed from Winterpills; The Corner Laughers soup up the beat as they apply their particular magic to Madness’ “Our House”; and Big-Box Store takes a wholly different approach to Kim Wilde’s frenetic “Kids in America,” slowing it down and infusing it with a heartfelt dose of passion.

Jim Boggia and Pete Donnelly turn Adam Ant’s cheeky “Goody Two Shoes” inside out, applying a faux-military drum part and making every note count for a kind of jazzy workout. Similarly, the Davenports dress Wham’s “Freedom” up in power pop overalls, thereby upping the song’s catchy quotient. And Linus of Hollywood puts every ounce of emotion at his disposal into his take on Daryl Hall’s classic “Everytime You Go Away,” originally waxed by Paul Young.

The first lesson one learns listening to compilations such as this is that some aspect of everything you hear today can be traced back to something that came before. The spirit of these songs, denizens of radio first tuned into so long ago, lives on in these new versions of favored classics. The second lesson? Good songs never die, and as chosen and curated by master compilation craftsman Curry, they still rock and roll and fill your body and soul. And in the form of this Reign, they make a great, collective stocking stuffer. – Alan Haber

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I Love that Song! #3: “Red Dragon Tattoo” by Fountains of Wayne

Fountains of Wayne's "Red Dragon Tattoo": "I got it for you!"

Fountains of Wayne’s “Red Dragon Tattoo”: “I got it for you!”

Amongst the parade of sad sacks, losers and miscreants that populate the breadth of Fountains of Wayne’s considerable catalog, the guy who gets a gnarly tattoo in an effort to woo and then snag a girl he’s got his eye on is top of the screwy, creepy guy molehill. Never has anyone worked so hard with so little brain power to make romantic things happen. The doofus in “Red Dragon Tattoo” is so wrongheaded and lightly starched that a game of Candy Land would be beyond his capabilities. Imagine, then, that a song about a walking fit of nothing could be so cheery and bright and catchy–a melodic, power pop classic from Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway album.

The song bops along in a carefree way, lightly percussive, guitars and drums keeping the steady beat. I love the way the lyrics work in tandem with the melody. And I love the portrait of the song’s subject, the poignantly-misguided you’ve-got-to-feel-sorry-for-a-loser-so-sure-of-himself dude.

This guy’s a champion plotter. He’s got the day picked out, the route mapped with certainty–a robber without a purse. “With the money I saved/Gonna get me engraved,” he sings, happily, forthright and stout. He downs a backyard pool’s worth of some fancy shmancy Basil Hayden’s bourbon to get himself ready to do the deed, even as he presupposes that he will get “kicked out” of the tattoo parlour “when” he “can’t see straight.” A tax planner or life coach in the making? No, probably not.

Armed with a solid plan to put into rubbery motion, this dude’s either talking to the tattoo he hasn’t yet gotten or he’s hearing wobbly voices. “In you I confide/Red Dragon Tattoo/I’m fit to be dyed/Am I fit to have you,” the guy sings, perhaps unsure of himself or just plain dumb from the start.

Upon entering the tattoo shop, the guy is given some design choices: “A mermaid and a heart that says mother,” but he’s a little weary because he doesn’t “know from maritime” and “never did hard time.” This genius then divulges that he “brought a .38 Special CD collection” (missing the coolness factor by leaps and bounds) and, in a moment of health conscious self-reflection and possibly a scary premonition that the folks who work in the tattoo shop don’t practice cleanliness next to their Godliness, “some Bactine to prevent infection.” And if that weren’t enough, on the off chance that he might “get queasy, a photo of Easy Rider.” Dude’s a thinking man’s man, after all.

Red Dragon Tattoo?

Red Dragon Tattoo?

The Red Dragon tattoo inked, applied and resplendent on his person, the guy pleads with his intended: “Will you stop pretending I’ve never been born/Now I look a little more like that guy from KorN/If you came a little bit closer/You’d see it isn’t painted on/Oh no no.” Cool, manly tattoo equals gold-plated boyfriend material, indeed.

Does this guy get the girl in the end? That’s left up to the listener. My guess? As Bon Jovi sings in “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame/Darlin’ you give love a bad name.” And, as Pete Townshend wrote in the song “Tattoo,” ” Welcome to my life, tattoo/I’m a man now, thanks to you.” But this guy really doesn’t know who he is. Really, it doesn’t much matter. Perhaps someone should put up a plaque somewhere–possibly the tattoo shop–with the words “He tried, He failed, Didn’t get the girl although he took a whirl.”

Alan Haber | April 2, 2014

 

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