- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

It’s well after midnight in the 9:30 Club’s cellar barroom, but Fountains of Wayne, still buzzing after playing a flawless sold-out show Tuesday night, isn’t planning on hitting the sack anytime soon. Sleep can wait. There are drinks to be drunk. The critically favored five-piece band has a 4 a.m. bus ride to New York City and another sold-out gig at Irving Plaza to look forward to — something of a triumphant homecoming.

The Big Apple and its outlying suburbs, of course, are this indie-pop band’s old stomping grounds as well as the backdrop for the quirky little story-songs crafted by lead singer Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger.

Mr. Schlesinger, who penned the title song to the Tom Hanks-directed “That Thing You Do,” is the band’s bassist and high-harmony vocalist. Tuesday night, he joked about this home-turf predilection onstage. Saying he’s often asked, “Is the point of your band to write songs about New Jersey?” he answered, “There really isn’t a point to our band.”

Well, maybe not, but Wayne’s music isn’t exactly pointless; it’s too smart for that.

With Manhattan as its hub, the band’s relentlessly catchy new album, “Welcome Interstate Managers,” fans out to infra-dig Jersey suburbs like “Hackensack” and tony vacation enclaves like “Fire Island.”

Sometimes people leave the city to become actors in Los Angeles (“I saw you talkin’ / to Christopher Walken”). Sometimes they leave for “No Better Place.”

Insisting his imaginative world isn’t confined to greater New York, Mr. Schlesinger says, “We just write about the places we know.”

The places and, he might have added, the people — real people leading real lives in real America, not just in buzzy Manhattan or Los Angeles.

Middle managers, Port Authority workers, depressed account managers who gulp down one more whiskey sour before catching a morning flight to Baltimore: Mr. Schlesinger and Mr. Collingwood observe the world through a lens much like that of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan fame, except they’re not quite as smirking and ironic.

It’s quite possible they care about the characters who populate their music.

Also unlike Steely Dan, Fountains of Wayne is direct in its songwriting; the band says in a galloping three minutes what the Becker-Fagen firm might take a ponderous eight minutes to say, amid all the instrumental ornamentation.

There are no virtuosos in Fountains of Wayne — which suits the music just fine. The star of this band is the band — drummer Brian Young, lead guitarist Jody Porter and keyboardist Steve Gold round out the lineup. The stories the band tells are so compellingly whimsical and often downright funny that technical prowess would only be a distraction.

The show Tuesday lasted about an hour and 10 minutes — no marathon, that’s for sure, but it was so well-paced and the performances were so punchy that the brevity didn’t seem like a gyp.

Wayne breezed through 19 songs, steadily building energy and never bogging down, even on such mellower numbers as “Hackensack” and “Winter Valley Song.”

The band stuck mostly to its up-tempo material, boisterous cuts such as “Little Red Lights,” “Bright Future in Sales” and, from its first two albums, “Leave the Biker,” a hilarious plea to a woman hung up on a rednecky boyfriend, and “Utopia Parkway,” the name of an actual highway in Brooklyn.

Wayne’s fusion of brash guitars and sweet singing (the harmonies are note-perfect when sung live) works like a charm. True, the band’s brand of post-punk pop has a long lineage — from Squeeze to Weezer — but few have done it better.

Mr. Collingwood and Mr. Schlesinger evince a catholic knowledge of pop rock, evoking oldsters such as the Zombies on “Mexican Wine” and comparative newbies such as the Cars on “Stacy’s Mom.”

For the latter song, a cheeky tribute to a friend’s smokin’-hot mom, the band recently shot an MTV-bound video starring model Rachel Hunter.

Hopes are high that Wayne, having already been bounced from a major label, finally will achieve a popular breakthrough.

Mr. Young says there’s a chance Wayne could sneak onto the airwaves via an increasingly popular format called “hot AC” (adult-contemporary).

“Our goal is to move to the next level,” he says. While Mr. Schlesinger cautions that the band “isn’t out to top [the mega-popular rapper] 50 Cent,” it’s clear that Wayne is itching for broader success: Those content with rock press acclaim don’t make videos with models in them.

“It would be nice to be a little bit bigger,” Mr. Young admits, “but we consider ourselves really lucky to be able to do this.”

One more thing about New York. Pace, Mr. Schlesinger: After it plays Irving Plaza, Fountains of Wayne has another date in the city — with David Letterman.

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