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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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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