Ah, MILF. The most loathsome catchphrase in our cultural lexicon. Meme I’d Like to Fuck. I regret, in my capacity as critic and ostensible tastemaker, that I have not done more to discredit and dismantle the MILF phenomenon; worse yet, a rock band I greatly admire, the Fountains of Wayne, have done much to propagate it.
Ah, “Stacy’s Mom.” I bet you hate “Stacy’s Mom.” That’s fine. It is aggressive, ruthless, almost invasive in its catchiness, the Grand Theft Auto of Cars rip-offs, the synths and harmonies like marshmallow Peeps paddling across a lake of hot fudge. Instant diabetes. For a grown-ass man to enjoy a song with a chorus that repeatedly intones, “Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on” requires some internal compromises. And yet the album it anchors, 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, is an unparalleled power-pop triumph. Warm, witty, erudite, and painstakingly detailed, it is (to mix sports metaphors) a home-run derby from start to finish, climaxing with “All Kinds of Time,” without question the finest football-related power ballad of the modern era.
Four years and one B-sides collection later (thanks for the “Baby One More Time” cover, guys), the Fountains return with Traffic and Weather, and suddenly everyone hates them. Or rather, those who hate them now do so with an especially alarming virulence. “We should expect much, much more from pop music than this kind of bullshit,” Pitchfork snarls; Stylus unleashes the even more devastating “. . . you’ll wonder whether you ever truly liked them in the first place.”
This latter jape especially resonates with me, as I, reluctantly, hate Traffic and Weather too.
Clearly I am the problem here. They haven’t changed. The tunes are still fuzzy, goofy, precisely arranged new-wave dioramas, like miniature Wes Anderson flicks lousy with stoned airline pilots, sexy travel agents, malevolent bikers, laser shows, petulant waitresses, beer-soaked proms, and horny newscasters. The problem is all those wacky characters and random winking Us Weekly–caliber references—Coldplay, the Gap, High Times, The King of Queens—have become unbearably cloying. We already have a band that happily provides impossibly sugary pop songs about thirty(forty?)somethings expressing bewilderment about modern pop culture and wistfully indulging their nostalgia for a simpler time: They are called Bowling for Soup.
So your fists ball up involuntarily when “Someone to Love” kicks us off by rhyming
law degree, Schenectady, ’93, food industry, and
recipes. The full band kicks in on the line “He calls his mom.” Track two is called ” ’92 Subaru”—self-explanatory. Track three, “Yolanda Hayes,” is the band’s low point to date: a breezy ode to a (God, hopefully) imaginary woman working at the DMV. When fans say stuff like “Boy, these guys could write a song about the DMV and make it interesting!” they are giving you a compliment, not making a suggestion. Knock it off.
What kills me every time, here, though, is “I-95,” which begins by describing a truck stop with some sort of telling-detail ammo dump: “They sell posters of girls washing cars/Unicorns and stars/Guns N’ Roses album covers/They’ve got most of the Barney DVDs/Coffee mugs and T’s/That say ‘Virginia Is for Lovers.’ ” This is technically writing, but it’s not songwriting—just a jumble of zeitgeist ephemera to let us know the narrator’s better than the truck stop and the songwriter’s better than the song.
Tuesday night at Webster Hall, though, to an insatiable audience of MILFs and the DWFTs (Dads Who Fuck Them), the Fountains redeem themselves somewhat when I notice the chorus for the first time: “It’s a nine-hour drive/From me to you/South on I-95/And I’ll do it till the day that I die if I need to/Just to see you/Just to see you.” Lo! One man’s cheese is another man’s heartfelt pathos. We are back in the hat-country cornfield, but it suits them far better than overeducated East Coast ironic distance.
The Fountains live is an odd, contradictory experience. They play the Workmanlike Pop Band role extraordinarily well; the press this time around has focused on bassist/co-songwriter Adam Schlesinger’s exit strategy writing fictional, plot-moving pop hits for movies like That Thing You Do and the more recent Music and Lyrics. The attention shift from hokey verses to hooky choruses splendidly suits older tunes like “Radiation Vibe” and “Sink to the Bottom.”
(Same with “Denise,” though it also teaches us that songs that jokily reference Puff Daddy don’t age particularly well.) And it’s fun watching them skate the nerd/badass divide—lead guitarist Jody Porter is fond of cock-swinging, guitar-smashing antics at increasingly amusing odds with the polite MILF-rock band he’s actually in. Watching him smoke petulantly through a slow shuffler called “Hackensack” is great fun.
But “Hackensack” is also a great bummer of a character sketch, a sad-sack nobody pining for the high school classmate who became a garish movie star. Verily, “I saw you talkin’/To Christopher Walken” is cringe-worthy, but it’s balanced by actual feeling. That’s what Traffic and Weather struggles with, mightily: crafting actual human beings out of Trivial Pursuit-–answer mashed potatoes.
Meanwhile, the band’s newfound TV news fixation is mystifying, extending from their album title to their newscaster-sampling entrance music to their guest stars (CNBC financial analyst Dylan Ratigan, for some reason, jumping onstage to supply goofy percussion on “Hey Julie”).
Back in the late ’90s when these guys wrote cheeky odes to both high school nostalgia and yawning suburban commuter ennui, I suspect many fans wrote it off as I’ll-never-end-up-like-that irony. A decade or so later, the Fountains have a new fanbase that appreciates those odes sincerely. They’re
living it. This could be you. Matter of fact, it’ll only be you if you’re lucky. And as you stand in Webster Hall and the band finally lurches into “Stacy’s Mom,” it’s sobering to realize the song’s not written from the perspective of the lovestruck kid pining for a much older woman—it’s written from the perspective of the older woman. She’s imagining the effect she still has, the romantic havoc she can still cause, though primarily with the teenage set. “I still got it,” she’s thinking, bouncing around the kitchen to a peppy tune evocative of her own ’80s teenagedom. Yeah, but does the band?
Editor’s Note: A correction was made to the original piece. Adam Schlesinger is Fountains of Wayne’s bassist, not their frontman. Chris Collingswood was not smoking petulantly, it was Jody Porter. A couple of commenters kindly pointed this out below and the online version has since been adjusted accordingly. Now stop with the e-mails. Thank you.