Does the world really need rock ’n roll nerds? Sure, they’re great fun on FM radio, and years from now the best of the lot could be the subjects of a bitchin’ Rhino compilation. But nebbish rockers have short life spans: the good ones (Elvis Costello, Gordon Gano) go bad in a hurry, and the bad ones. . .well, anyone out there anxiously awaiting the new Harvey Danger?
Still, there’s a lot to be said for pop smarts and adolescent angst, so there’ll always be room for a few good nerd-rock acts. Ben Folds Five and Fountains of Wayne are two of the most successful in recent memory: the latter parlayed its modern-rock hit “Radiation Vibe” into an opening gig for the Smashing Pumpkins, while the former’s “Brick” was such a smash it got played on VH1. VH1! How about that?
So why mess with a winning formula? At the very least, it makes fiscal sense that both bands have released new albums revisiting their teenage days with an acute attention that borders on frightening obsession. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner takes its name from the alias Ben Folds used to sneak into bars as a high-schooler; Utopia Parkway finds the Fountains of Wayne singing odes to “The Valley of Malls,” laser shows and, yes, even senior prom. Varsity blues, indeed.
On subject matter alone, then, it would be easy to dismiss the albums as amusing trifles. Both bands have, after all, struck an odd equilibrium between substantial pop melodies and throwaway themes. But the easy answer ain’t so easy after all. Reinhold Messner and Utopia Parkway aren’t just pop records; they’re loose concept records. The allegedly halcyon days of youth aren’t means to an end. They’re ends in and of themselves.
Ends about which the two bands feel very differently. If you believe Ben Folds Five, adolescence is gawky, messy and overall about as enjoyable as a root canal. If you believe Fountains of Wayne, it’s good, clean, sun-drenched fun. The mini-suite of five songs opening Reinhold Messner starts with a dirge about narcolepsy and ends with a deathbed requiem. By contrast, the biggest crisis on all of Utopia Parkway comes when the protagonist tries to impress a girl by getting a “Red Dragon Tattoo.”
But Messner is no Welcome to the Dollhouse â€“ it’s not that smart â€“ and Parkway is no Varsity Blues â€“ it’s not that stupid. In fact, Fountains of Wayne say a lot more with their naÃ¯ve nostalgia than Ben Folds Five does with its wounded sentimentality.
Bad news first: Messner opens with Folds noodling on the piano like a second-grader doing exercises. Just when it starts to sound precious, the whole band unleashes a couple of noisy instrumental thuds, crushing its preteen protagonist with a sort of “Chopsticks” from hell. From there on, it’s pretty grim sailing. Folds follows up his wasted youth with â€“ here’s the really conceptual part â€“ a wasted future. His four-song closing set that just drips with rue: hell, one of the songs is called “Regrets,” and it’s quite the laundry list.
The problem with the album, though, isn’t inherent in the message. It’s in the way it’s delivered. Messner finds Folds wielding a sizable bag of tricks â€“ a pair of Squirrel Nut Zippers show up to play horns; Folds tries on influences ranging from “Bohemian Rhapsody”-influenced prog to Bacaharach-esque cocktail lounge. But instead of throwing it all against the wall and seeing what sticks (as on past albums), here he just kind of squeezes it into a big, turgid ball of Play-Doh. There are some fine singular moments, like the ’70s pop horn/piano interplay on “Don’t Change Your Plans” and the pretty Simon and Garfunkel chorus of “Magic.” But picking them out of an otherwise undifferentiated mush isn’t a whole lot of fun.
Still, there are two awfully fun efforts on Messner, the one-two punch of “Army” and “Your Redneck Past.” It’s only on these tracks that Folds manages to separate his navel-gazing subject matter from his musical presentation. They might be “Battle of Who Could Care Less” clones, but they’re indisputably confident and rollicking: the Zippers rip stuff up, Folds pounds on his piano while name-dropping Chick-Fil-A, everyone goes home happy.
Tellingly, these high points come right in the middle of the album â€“ between the ghosts of Ben Folds past and future. The message: Ben Folds present can still be a fun guy, as long as he lays off the Valium.
The Fountains of Wayne want nothing more than to be fun guys, so Utopia Parkway creates an entirely illusory present all its own. Scott Moringiello assures me that the NYC street from which the album takes its name is “a fairly main drag,” but the album suggests it’s kind of like Candy Land.
Although Fountains masterminds Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood are both recent Williams grads, their version of Utopia is closer to Death Valley than the Purple Valley. The new disc is as So. Cal. as a Sugar Ray single, but with actual charm and songwriting chops â€“ imagine that! The first half roars by in exemplary fashion; even when the guys aren’t quite as witty as they might think, the tunes are irresistibly catchy bubblegum (Schlesinger co-wrote the title song for That Thing You Do!). Special points for the brilliant new-wave meets surf sing-along “Denise” (“she works at Liberty Travel. . .she listens to Puff Daddy”), the catchiest power-pop love plaint since Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept.”
Like youth, of course, the magic begins to fade. The laser shows, prom themes and Korn wannabes that populate Fountains of Wayne’s songs start to get samey just like Ben Folds’ young narcoleptics and laughed-at second graders. But at least the Fountains are making a joyful noise; taken in small gulps, Utopia Parkway is first-rate escapist fantasy.
Reinhold Messner: 5/10
Utopia Parkway: 7/10