Fountains Of Wayne and Weezer: they may be some distance apart in terms of popularity/record sales, but their respective careers share notable similarities. Both bands got off the mark with two superb albums (Fountains Of Wayne and Utopia Parkway/Blue Album and Pinkerton) whose geek-rock aesthetic and irresistible hooks were mixed with songwriting of surprising depth and empathy. Both took a bit of a breather before returning with a somewhat-dumbed-down approach (Welcome Interstate Managers/Green Album and Maladroit), nonetheless retaining a knack for killer three-minute wonders (‘Valley Winter Song’, ‘No Better Place’/”Hash Pipe’, ‘Island In The Sun’). Both came to the attention of many through novelty promo videos (‘Stacy’s Mom’/’Buddy Holly’). Finally and regrettably, both have fallen victim to a drastic drop in standards that extends back as far as 2005 in Weezer’s case (the stunningly awful Make Believe). For Fountains Of Wayne, the rot set in with 2007’s Traffic and Weather, an album that was so comically trite in places that you were tempted to think it was some post-modern prank by the band.
Any hopes that they can turn things around at this stage are swiftly dashed about 4 seconds into opening track ‘The Summer Place’, courtesy of a guitar riff that sounds like one of those little pieces of music that punctuate scenes in a sitcom. Not that musical virtuosity has ever been their strong point, but the rest of the song is characterised by predictable melodies and an unimaginative arrangement. ‘Acela’ is merely a second-rate retread of ‘Hat and Feet’ (or even previous B-side ‘Karpet King’), while ‘A Road Song’ is an alt-country-tinged love song that actually admits to being cliched. Overall the musical vibe is mellow and acoustic-based, mixed with the odd burst of power-pop.
There are two main problems with Fountains Of Wayne these days. The first is that Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood no longer seem to have the ability to write melodies that linger in your head for days afterwards – an art that they previously had down to a tee. Secondly and perhaps less forgivably, their character sketches and observations of everyday minutiae seem forced and one-dimensional. On their earlier material the band had a Raymond Carver-esque knack for portraying mundane, everyday subject matter in a subtle, empathetic way; seeming satirical at times but far from it – witness ‘A Fine Day For A Parade”s depiction of suburban ennui and loss, or the haunting, quiet desperation of ‘Hackensack’. The character sketches in ‘Richie and Ruben’ or ‘Action Hero’ may be aiming for the same effect, but they just end up sounding stilted and jaded.
Admittedly, there’s nothing on Sky Full Of Holes that’s quite as bad as ‘Planet Of Weed’ from their last album (surely a contender for one of the worst songs ever written). The lilting ‘Workingman’s Hands’ and the solid power-pop of ‘Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart’ stand out as the strongest tracks, and overall it’s a fairly inoffensive affair. It’s just that they used to be so much more.