Fountains of Wayne are like catnip to music nerds and rock critics. They put out albums full of catchy power-pop songs that put most of mainstream pop music to shame. But since the band has never been flashy (or particularly well-marketed), the only impression they’ve made on the popular consciousness was the borderline novelty of “Stacy’s Mom”, back in 2003. Still, the number of flat-out great songs co-leaders Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger have written is probably in the dozens by now. Especially when you consider that Schlesinger has become an in-demand ghostwriter for Hollywood, penning tracks for movies like Music and Lyrics and Josie and the Pussycats.
Still, one could be forgiven for wondering if Schlesinger and Collingwood still have that magic touch. The last Fountains of Wayne album, Traffic and Weather, was a solid effort, but not quite up to the band’s usual high standards. And then there was Tinted Windows, the 2009 Schlesinger-led supergroup that featured guitarist James Iha, singer Taylor Hanson, and Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos. That was one of those ideas that sounded a lot better on paper than in the execution, and it featured some of the laziest songwriting Schlesinger’s ever done.
But maybe the tossed-off nature of Tinted Windows just proves that good power-pop takes time. Because Sky Full of Holes finds Fountains of Wayne back at the top of their game. From the rocking opener “The Summer Place” to the gentle closer “Cemetery Guns”, the album is full of great songs. The former features Schlesinger’s trademark hyper-specific lyrics, beginning with “She’s been afraid of the Cuisinart / Since 1977 / Now when she opens up the house / She won’t set foot in the kitchen”, and plenty of other bittersweet nostalgia for the family’s summer home. The song also features a catchy guitar lead, a beautiful melody in the verses, and a pounding chorus that’s subtly enhanced by Farfisa organ. “Cemetery Guns”, on the other hand, is a melancholy Collingwood song about military funerals. It’s the small touches that really sell the song, like the military snare and the quiet string accompaniment.
The rest of the album finds the band staying right in their comfort zone, and that familiarity pays dividends. Mid-tempo Schlesinger songs like the loping “Richie and Ruben” and the slightly bluesy “Acela” combine pitch-perfect songwriting with amusing narrative lyrics. Collingwood comes up with a gem in “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart.” Lyrically the song is much more impressionistic, running through individual moments before hitting the achingly lovely pre-chorus, then following it up with the catchy chorus couplet “Someone’s gonna break your heart / One cold gray morning”, and then piling on a series of irresistible “O-oh-woah-oh”’s after that. As if that wasn’t enough, the next Collingwood song on the album is the equally brilliant “Dip in the Ocean”, an up-tempo rocker that loads up on at least four individual earworms, the best of which is the tightly layered three-part harmony on the lines “Give us a room with a mountain view / A tiny cabana by the water / Yeah, by the water.”
The missteps on Sky Full of Holes are few and far between, but Schlesinger’s “Action Hero” is a perfect example of what happens when his lyrical specificity works against him. The song itself is very strong, but lines like “His daughters both at once say / Can we just get going please? / And his wife begins to sneeze / And his son is throwing peas” cross the line from specific to cloying. Besides that, though, the album is just about as good as Fountains of Wayne have ever been. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the bulk of their catalog and continues the band’s clinic on great songwriting. Yeah, I was partaking of the Fountains of Wayne catnip when I was just a music nerd, and now that I’m also a rock critic I can say that their stuff is as potent as ever.