Fountainhead of success: Alums rock out the airwaves with their Jersey band

George Steinbrenner, Stephen Sondheim, Steve Case, James Garfield: these men are some of the most honorable and powerful to have graced the hallowed halls of Williams with their presence. But dammit, they just don’t rock. At least not like Chris Collingwood ’89 and Adam Schlesinger ’89 of Fountains of Wayne, anyway.

In 1986, these two freshmen from Jersey met when Collingwood showed Schlesinger the correct chord changes to an R.E.M. song on the roof of Lehman. They instantly bonded and formed a musical partnership that has lasted well beyond their days at Williams. Over the past 15 years, the songwriting team has honed their craft in the tradition of classic ’60s pop groups like the Zombies and the Kinks, ’70s AM radio bands like the Cars and Cheap Trick and obscure ’80s Brit-pop acts like Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout.

Taking their name from a fountain store in Wayne, N.J. (also featured on “The Sopranos”), the duo enlisted drummer Brian Young and bassist Jody Porter to complete material for their self-titled debut album. The band was picked up by Atlantic Records in 1996, receiving critical acclaim, but achieving surprisingly few record sales despite two alternative radio hits, “Radiation Vibe” and “Sink to the Bottom.” Utopia Parkway, their 1999 follow-up, was even better, joining the ranks of Weezer’s debut album as a candidate for best power-pop album of the ’90s. But Utopia Parkway didn’t exactly fly off the shelves and Fountains of Wayne found themselves dropped by Atlantic at the start of the new millennium.

After a short hiatus, Fountains of Wayne came back this summer on S-Curve Records with the fantastic Welcome Interstate Managers. The album strikes a balance between rockers like “Mexican Wine” and ballads like “Hackensack,” packed with hooks so catchy, you’ll sit wondering to yourself how this band could fail to slaughter the charts. “Bright Future in Sales” might well be the best song I’ve heard in a couple of years. At this point, it’s safe to say that Schlesinger and Collingwood have mastered the art of the 3-minute radio-ready pop song. So, uh, how come they aren’t selling out arenas around the country and partying on P. Diddy’s yacht?

Chances are you have seen the video for their new single, “Stacy’s Mom,” or at least heard the song on the radio. It’s a great video (starring the ever-lovely Rachel Hunter) and a very catchy song, but this inspired tale of MILF-dom was tagged at the beginning of the summer as Fountains of Wayne’s one chance at a breakthrough single and it just didn’t hook the MTV Summer Beach House crowd very well. Too bad: no one deserves success more than these guys and it’s criminal that there isn’t a copy of this album in every home. But the reality is that Fountains of Wayne makes uncool music, no matter how good it may be.

The hip thing in rock these days is posturing with the downtown-NYC pose. Every two-bit Strokes copycat band with a record deal is guilty. Most of these bands are faking it, coming from the suburbs instead of the city. Well, Fountains of Wayne comes from the Jersey suburbs and they’re not ashamed to admit it, or write tongue-in-cheek songs about the simple, everyday perils and pleasures of the decidedly un-hip suburban lifestyle. And the stories are great because Schlesinger and Collingwood are writing what they know instead of affecting some Lower East Side leather jacket pose like the rest of their less talented peers. Welcome Interstate Managers gives us songs about a cellular phone explosion, an alcoholic working his way up the corporate ladder, a man hoping his boyhood crush will move back to the suburbs and a 20-something whose parents went to Fire Island and left him with the house.

My favorite track on the album is “Valley Winter Song,” a somber ballad about the depression that sinks in during Winter in western New England when everyone’s holed up in their houses. It’s a beautiful tune, and though not everyone can relate, I sure as hell can. Still, this is not exactly Lou Reed’s sensationalized, seamy tales of the big city. Then again, Lou Reed was from Long Island and graduated from Syracuse University.

It is true that Fountains of Wayne’s popularity is at a high right now, which probably stems from them being marketed as the new Weezer (that is, a band for nerds who want to be cool). But in days when most kids from the suburbs want to be bad-asses from the city (judging from record sales, at least), this probably isn’t Schlesinger and Collingwood’s time, despite the major label money promoting them. The great thing is that the band doesn’t seem to mind; stardom is not what they want. They’ll just keep touring the world, writing pop songs with perfect hooks about suburban New Jersey and winning over audiences when they can. That’s a beautiful thing. Schlesinger and Collingwood are two alums that we can be proud of because they’ve found success on their own terms and made thousands of fans happy along the way.

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