- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

“Sky Full of Holes”

Fountains of Wayne

Yep Roc Records

★★½

When I first saw Fountains of Wayne, they were opening for the Smashing Pumpkins in Richmond, Va. It was January 1997, and the disparity between those two bands was huge. Billy Corgan and company were still riding high on the success of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” an orchestral double-album that earned seven Grammy nominations later that year, while Fountains of Wayne were small-time pop craftsmen, with only one album and a handful of fans to their name.

Still, I remember far more about Fountains of Wayne’s set than anything that happened later that evening. They kicked things off with “Joe Rey” and wound up playing the majority of their debut record, including cheeky tunes like “Leave the Biker” and “Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight.” They looked incredibly uncomfortable onstage, playing cute pop songs to an audience of 13,000 modern rock fans, but they sounded fantastic.

Nearly 15 years later, Fountains of Wayne have graduated to headliner status without abandoning their original sound. “Stacy’s Mom,” with its Buddy Holly hiccups and irreverent lyrics, is still the band’s biggest hit, but it’s just a drop in the bucket of pop songs that seem to pour from these guys’ fingertips like water. The steady flow continues with “Sky Full of Holes,” the group’s fifth album.

The biggest difference between this and the band’s 1996 debut, besides the handful of songs that deal with middle age, is the production. The band’s earliest tunes sounded like they’d been recorded in someone’s basement. Nowadays, bassist Adam Schlesinger runs his own studio, affording the musicians all the time they need to match their polished songwriting with equally crystalline production.

When music is this catchy, though, it needs to be roughed up a bit. “Sky Full of Holes” sometimes sounds too professional and hook-laden for its own good, as though these 13 songs were written by the same anonymous pop music factory that churns out hits for Britney Spears and Katy Perry. Look past the smudge-free production, though, and you’ll find some of the sharpest hooks in the music industry, from Chris Collingwood’s Merseybeat melodies to Jody Porter’s economical guitar hooks.

“Hate to See You Like This” is a wake-up call to a depressed girlfriend who can’t get off the couch, but it’s treated like a grand anthem, with thick harmonies and ringing guitars framing Mr. Collingwood’s voice. The band switches gears on “The Summer Place,” a British Invasion rock tune about returning to the vacation home of one’s youth, only to find that the problems of yesteryear haven’t faded away. “Richie and Ruben” spins the tale of two hipster entrepreneurs who can’t seem to hold on to their (or anyone else’s) money.

It’s been a long time since the Smashing Pumpkins’ performance in Richmond, and Fountains of Wayne are middle-aged by now. Still, they wear their maturity well, proving that pop songs can be ageless when they’re done well.

“King”

O.A.R.

Wind-Up Records

★★

Ten years ago, O.A.R. was one of the most successful indie bands on the college circuit. The group toured campus after campus, playing frat house shows and distributing their own music via self-financed albums. What began as a collegiate phenomenon eventually turned into a national audience, though, and O.A.R. became major-label hitmakers with the release of their 2008 album “All Sides.”

“King” finds the band teaming up with the same producer who helped make “All Sides” a hit. The songs aren’t as slick this time around, though. Having pushed themselves closer to the contemporary pop/rock camp on their previous record, the O.A.R. boys return to their college roots here, writing groove-based music that will appeal to fans of Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews.

Still, there’s something odd about a group of 30-somethings playing songs for college coeds, and the reggae rhythms that fill this album sound far too landlocked. Maybe O.A.R. is getting too old for this sort of thing, or maybe the band is still finding its footing after flirting with the mainstream makeover of “All Sides.”

Festival Season Continues

Bonnaroo and Coachella have already come and gone, but festival season continues with Lollapalooza, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend. Headliners for the Chicago event include Eminem, Foo Fighters, Muse and Coldplay.

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