Fountains of Wayne - Utopia Parkway (retro review) (Cover Artwork)

Fountains of Wayne

Utopia Parkway (retro review) (1999)

Atlantic Records

Formed in New York City in the mid-90’s, Fountains of Wayne were masters of power pop throughout their fairly brief career. Their 1996 self-titled debut album was barely changed from the demo that founders Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood handed Atlantic Records. That record spawned the single “Radiation Vibe”, which has perhaps the catchiest pop rock chorus ever written, and led to extensive touring. Schlesinger was also tapped to write the title song to the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do!, for which he received an Oscar nomination, and continued working with his other band, the criminally overlooked pop/dance act Ivy.

FOW’s follow up album was 1999’s Utopia Parkway. While not really a concept album per se, the foundation of everything here is rooted in the sprawling, monotonous desert that is American Suburbia. What FOW does best on Utopia Parkway is to take of all the dull, everyday minutiae of suburban life, and package it into a sound that is so bright and so refreshing, it’s as if pure sunshine is leaping out of your speakers. Now a quartet, there is much more fullness here than on their debut, which was arranged and mixed so barebones that it sounds like a punk record dressed as power pop. Nothing gets too complex or layered; other than the usual strings and sticks, there is just enough sprinkling of warm keyboards to compliment Collingwood’s dreamy croon. We get the pop craftiness of the Monkees, delivering tales of suburban boredom with the urgency of The Clash.

It’s all here, too. Trying to track down the girl you like, chain travel agencies, holiday parades, venturing to not just a mall, but a whole valley of them (probably referencing an actual area of northern New Jersey with 8 major shopping malls in a 20 mile radius), and when going to the planetarium is the ultimate night out. Even the crucial rite of passage that is the senior prom gets it’s own ballad. And true to the FOW formula, it’s all from an insider’s perspective, which makes for touching genuineness, and is served with such an enjoyably biting snark that we embrace laughing at each trite idiosyncrasy the band calls us out on.

Fountains of Wayne weren’t satisfied with Atlantic’s marketing efforts for the album; an argument which led to the label dropping the band, and a few years of inactivity for the band. After some side projects and production work, the band came back in 2003 with Welcome Interstate Managers, an album which finally made the band a household name thanks to the inescapable single “Stacy’s Mom”. While the band is now gone, 20 years later Utopia Parkway is their benchmark; the best achievement from a band whose touch can be heard today on bands like Vampire Weekend, the New Pornographers, and Sheer Mag. Their DIY debut may have turned heads in its own brilliant way, but it was Utopia Parkway’s jangly, summery sound and the honest telling of the stories of so many millions of us that still makes it as relatable and enjoyable today.