Whenever I would tell someone that Fountains of Wayne were my favourite band, it would often be a met by a kind of bemused look, mainly because of that song. But as is often the case with bands who have one big hit, there was so much more to them than that. You sadly only find out of course how loved people are when they’re not with us any more and the news of the Fountains’ Adam Schlesinger’s death from Coronavirus last week felt like a devastating blow, particularly given his young age. It was made marginally more bearable by the accolades heaped upon him by writers across the world which evidenced the esteem he was held in and the respect from musical journalist and fellow musicians which he garnered far and wide.
The New Yorker called Schlesinger “one of the great songwriters of his generation” while the Guardian said that his work was “borne of a deep love of and respect for songcraft” and I don’t disagree with either of those statements. His ear for a melody was for me unrivalled, but there was also a sad quietness to many of the songs he wrote with fellow band member Chris Collingwood – it’s no surprise to me that one of their favourite authors was Raymond Carver, and so many of the band’s songs feel like Carver style vignettes of the lives of ordinary people. As The Atlantic said last week, “Schlesinger’s music imagined escape. It also, with a subtle Springsteen-ian sadness, noted what the listener might be escaping from.”
For the Americana fan, Schlesinger clearly had a love of country music as it increasingly found its way into odd tracks on later albums and the Fountains’ music increasingly moved away from powerpop to a more general folk-rock sound, but in a more general sense, he wrote songs which have a real universality for lovers of, well, songs. Robbie Fulks wrote a tribute song to them many years back and waxed lyrical about Schlesinger’s talent in Variety last week, and Jason Isbell was one of many roots musicians who noted his death with sadness last week. Here are ten of my favourite tracks from the Fountains’ back catalogue with a
radiation Americana vibe.
‘Valley Winter Song’ It’s amazing to think that FOW’s biggest hit came from the same album as this track, which Cory Brannan posted a link to last week. Tracing the geography of which Schlesinger was so familiar, “From Staton Island to the Upper West Side, Whiting out our streets along the way” in the depths of February this still makes me feel warmed to my core.
‘A Road Song’ A road song in the truest sense (and they have some pedigree with this), the track takes a wry look at life on the road (“We’re still in Wisconsin as far as I know – Today was Green Bay and tomorrow Chicago”) Also contains the classic line: “Some kid threw a bottle on stage. He had an arm like a pro”
‘Hey Julie’ If you’ve ever watched Scrubs you will know this song which played over one of the greatest montages in that show’s history – and if you’ve ever had a boss who’s an arsehole, you will relate. One writer thinks Julie is the narrator’s dog.
‘Workingman’s Hands’ My favourite track from my favourite album by FOW (but not my favourite track by them ever, which is coming…) the bridge at 1.22 and the short guitar solo which follows still resonates for me as one of the loveliest forty seconds of music I’ve ever heard. The album incidentally is so good that this is what got left off the record.
‘Fire in the Canyon’ My favourite FOW song ever despite the fact that it’s not necessarily very representative of the album from which it came, I still remember where I was the first time I heard it (on the 86 bus into town). It’s another road song which talks about an “eerie kind of sadness on the highway today” – and still sounds to me like the theme (another road song) to The Littlest Hobo.
‘Hung Up On You’ Another track from what’s widely considered to be their key album, ‘Hung Up on You’ goes full on country with a full on country twist in the chorus: “Ever since you hung up on me I’m hung up on you” Some people believe it was the song which prompted Robbie Fulks to write ‘Fountains of Wayne Hotline’.
‘Seatbacks and Traytables’ The closing track to 2007’s ‘Traffic and Weather’ album ponders again where exactly they are in the States – “Is this Oklahoma? I remember this place.” Few artists cover the mundanity of travel as successfully as FOW.
‘Cemetery Guns’ Michael Hann in The Guardian noted that the final FOW album was quieter and more subtle – the last song on that final album he described as their “most moving and powerful song yet”, the melody against a military drumbeat providing real pathos.
‘Today’s Teardrops’ A cover of the Roy Orbinson classic from 1961, this song is taken from their extensive collection of b-sides and outtakes, this one being the flip side to their single from 1999 ‘Red Dragon Tattoo’. The Fountains also did a superb cover of Jackson Browne’s ‘These Days’ on this record.
‘Hackensack’ And to round off this ten, just in case you’ve never heard it before – not exactly Americana but as a song it represents everything good about FOW as a band and gave the first hint of the new direction in which at least some of their music would subsequently head. Being based on a town from New Jersey, the State in which they lived, it’s essentially a love song, at the same time understated and overwhelming, and has been covered by many people over the years including Katy Perry. Also how many songs can you name which feature Christopher Walken? Adam Schlesinger – your wit and empathy will be missed.
Well, I listened to “Cemetery Guns” again and now I have something in my eye. The “Blue / Grey / Green” lines are particularly striking.
And I stand with you on the idea that FOW were Americana. Not of the great, grizzled outdoors or the hipper parts of Nashville but the more mundane reality of those eastern suburban towns.
Thanks for that Paul, and yes completely agree
And on a lighter note, I’m off to look up the chords to “Hey Julie”.
Brilliant – his music lives on.
Another cracking feature Mark which has not only inspired to dust my FOW CDs but also to forward your article to three friends who will be similarly inspired ! Please keep up the good work not least in these strange times.
That’s lovey to hear Colin, thanks for those kind words
I was struck by how much Workingman’s hands reminds me of Camille by Jason Ringenberg ( in a very good way ), but it’s probably just me ! Thanks to everyone at AUK for, well, pretty much everything.
Wow Andrew so long since I’ve heard that song! But you’re right, particularly the chorus – love Jason. Delighted you have managed to listen to some of these FOW tracks.