One for Friday: Fountains of Wayne, “Utopia Parkway”

I’d like to say that I grabbed a hold of Fountains of Wayne after seeing That Thing You Do!, but that’s not quite accurate. Fountains of Wayne songwriter Adam Schlesinger penned the title cut to Tom Hanks’s directorial debut, miraculously creating an instantly catchy number that never overstayed its welcome despite being circled back to repeatedly in the film (and then there are those of us who’ve watched the film countless times and still never gotten sick of it). That introduction should have reasonably been enough to convince me that this was an artist made for me, particular since his brand of sharp, bright pop was exactly what I needed while suffering through the extended musical hangover of the grunge era. But when I listened to tracks off of the self-titled debut from Fountains of Wayne, released at roughly the same time as the That Thing You Do!, it didn’t hold up to the high standard I’d automatically set. The problem was probably more with me than them, but I still found myself disregarding Schlesinger’s efforts away from the fictional Wonders.

Fountain of Wayne’s sophomore effort changed everything. Utopia Parkway, blessed with the sort of title that conveys a perfectly realized, ingeniously sly sensibility, came out in the spring of 1999, providing the shiny entryway to summer that only the best stereo-up-windows-down album can. Whatever I didn’t find on Fountains of Wayne, I discovered in abundance on the new album. The pop hooks were irresistible, the sense of humor was prevalent without letting the songs descend into wearying novelty, and the whole record conveyed a sense of real joy in the act of music-making. Without overt effort or any sort of evident pandering, Utopia Parkway sounded like it was spun directly from the pop song heavens, and yet there was also just enough of a layer of toughness to it–to the tempo, the instruments, and the outlook of the songs–that it didn’t threaten to become a forgettable wisp. The songs had staying power.

Fortuitously, the song that means the most to me–that immediately carries me back to the first time I heard the album–is the opening track. The title cut sets the tone with its mix of the aspirational and the mundane, the shapeless promise of a certain point of youth at a certain place in the world. Even though I well into my adult life at the point, I could still relate. Years and years later, my empathy still swells when I hear it. And I want to turn it up, roll down the windows, and let the mounting summer in.

Fountains of Wayne, “Utopia Parkway”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Utopia Parkway is out of print as a physical object, perhaps in part due to lingering animosity between the band and the label. Atlantic Records and Fountains of Wayne parted ways after this album, only to have the band emerge five years later with their sole Top 40 hit, one that has perhaps defined them as more a novelty act than is really beneficial. It is available for digital purchase, but who knows if any of that money ever makes its way back to the band. Regardless, your favorite local, independently-owned record store definitely sees no revenue when commerce is conducted that way, so we feel free to ignore that ’round these here parts. Thus, the song is posted here with the belief that doing so impedes no worthwhile transactions that compensate the correct parties. Also, it’s fair use, no matter what the lawmakers say. Regardless, I will gladly remove the song is asked to do so by someone with due authority to make such a request.)

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