It's a double feature!!!
Fountains of Wayne- Traffic and Weather
Fountains of Wayne are masters of their craft as any fan knows (and I am one, so everything I’m about to say is coming from someone who really enjoys them, owns every album, and has seen them live twice). However their 4th album raises the question: When does mastery turn into boredom? Ever since their 1st album in 1994 they’ve capitalized on sunny pop songs that idolize the everyday, especially if the everyday involves cars. They highlight the common conversations, the drives to work, the boredom of the cubicle, the monotony of middle class life. But over 10 years after their first try, the formula hasn’t changed, and it’s starting to show.
Their single is “Someone to Love,” an ode to the bored twentysomethings coming home to empty couches and bad TV. Unfortunately, it’s not the right song for a single, and most definitely not the right song to start an album off with. The disco groove hints at something exciting, but it leads nowhere. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. And that’s just the problem: the song isn’t anything. It doesn’t draw you into the album, nor does it make you shout in horror. It just happens, and moves on. Surely there should be a bigger reaction than this.
The next song is much better. “’92 Subaru” has the rock riffs, pop handclaps and quirky subject that have defined FOW in the past. But at this point, it sounds forced. Almost every song has a more passionate counterpart on a previous album. The country tune “Fire in the Canyon” can be matched by Welcome Interstate Manager’s “Hung Up on You.” “This Better Be Good,” a song about the right girl with the wrong guy is easily beat by “Leave the Biker” on their self titled album. They even do another song about a scatterbrained but endearing girl (“Revolving Dora”) with the same anti-gravity metaphors as Utopia Parkway’s “Lost in Space.” A speck of originality comes with “Planet of Weed,” which is either an earnest tribute to the drug or a satirical bite at lazy hippies, and sounds just as charmingly drowsy and forgetful as if you were smoking up with them.
If you’ve never heard them before you’ll know they’re good, but if you have then you know they’ve done it better. The main problem is that while they are masters of pop-rock, they’re masters of 90’s pop-rock. If this album was released 15 years ago it would be an instant hit, much like their first album. But 1992 is too recent to be fashionably retro, and they end up sounding jaded. And where is the soul of a song like “Troubled Times”? When did the kitch and the cars get in the way of emotion? They sound as done with the 90’s as the 90’s are with them, and ready to use their talents with something different.
Kings of Leon- Because of the Times
Upon playing this album for my roommate as we sat down to dinner, her first exclamation was “Jesus Christ, how many types of songs can these guys fit onto one album!?” And upon multiple listenings, the answer is: very many. Their first album was a punch of southern dirt-rock, while the second veered into the skinny-panted indie realm, and about half of it left me silently screaming “there’s nothing wrong with dirty southern rock! Turn around and go back!” With their third album, Kings of Leon has emerged from the southern grit, passed through indie and made it all the way to something resembling progressive experimentalism without flaw. And while some of the songs wear their influences on their sleeve, the whole thing is another great album by an increasingly versatile band.
The opening is…uncomfortable, sounding drastically different than anything they’ve done before. It’s something along the lines of prog-rock with a metal chorus and a continual blues riff. And it’s intoxicating. After 7 minutes of that you’re good and primed for where the album is going, and it’s not looking as strange as it was before. “Charmer” immediately channels the Pixies, and solidifies their movement into rougher territory. At this point my roommate and I tried to play the game of which-band/style-does-this-song-sound-like?, and though we were successful at a few (“My Party” definitely has the NIN avant-garde static), we realized most of the songs aren’t easily placed. We’d be thinking Van Halen when they’d slap us with the Stones, or of UB40 when Lynyrd Skynrd would show up. And even when we made those connections, they weren’t complete. They don’t repeat the past, but rather let their individuality be genuinely influenced. Even when they poke a peephole back to their first album with “Black Thumbnail,” they don’t sound like they did back then. They sound like a new band playing with their old sound.
It’s that newness that’s so surprising. They’ve released three albums, each sounding minimally like the others, yet each sounding distinctly like Kings of Leon. Maybe it’s Caleb Followill’s unmistakable vocals, or the familiar subjects of alcohol and mistakes. Or maybe it’s the soul. No matter what they’ve recorded, they always sound like they put everything into it. They don’t change just to be different, they change because they’re actually changing as a band and finding something valuable in the different sounds. And if they’re this good at everything they try, let’s hope they keep trying.