Fountains of Wayne play to the choir

Yesterday I attended the first of Fountains of Wayne’s two-night stand at Ebisu Liquid Room in Tokyo. Though not sold out, the show was suitably packed to provide the sort of sweaty love-in the group tends to enjoy from its fans whenever they roll into town. Their species of power pop speaks to a slightly brainier, and, I imagine, older cohort in their native United States, which may explain why they didn’t become as popular a group as many people once expected them to be. But even in Japan, where this sort of music is catnip to a wider cross section of rock enthusiasts, FOW has never managed to attract anything beyond their core cult. I mean, this same week, My Morning Jacket, to me the very definition of a cult band, played up the road at the much larger Shibuya AX.

Still, what you get at an FOW concert here is a very intense sort of appreciation. It’s not just that everyone knows the songs backwards and forwards. They also have the choreography down, choreography that seems specific to Japan, since the band doesn’t partake or necessarily encourage it. The syncopated hand-clapping was particularly effective and may have encouraged Adam Schlesinger to invite three members of the audience to play percussion instruments with the band on “Hey Julie,” a gambit that was first met with strange reluctance: they practically had to drag the three volunteers on stage. If American FOW fans seems over-intellectual, Japanese FOW fans are shy by definition? I’d buy that but would need to see more empirical evidence.

So what does that make me? I’m American, and, to a certain extent, brainy. I mean, I’ve written about Fountains of Wayne many times in the past, usually from the standpoint of their tri-state world vision, which happens to dovetail with my own even if the two principal songwriters are 10-15 years my junior. I enjoy their shows because their tunes seem custom made for singalongs and just sound plain good in a live setting. They aren’t particularly avid showmen, unless you count guitarist Jody Porter’s stock of ax-wielding cliches and Keef-styled tobacco-puffing. Chris Collingwood remains an affable and even adorable frontman who, nevertheless, still isn’t completely comfortable with an audience he knows doesn’t understand English as well as they should to appreciate his lyrics. But they understand enough, and, in any case, the words mean a lot less in concert than the band’s patented “do-ya” and “uh-uhh-uh-uh” choruses, which everyone can sing.

So there’s no particular reason why the group has to play pretty much the same set list it has for the last decade. I admit my tastes are rarefied even within the FOW cult, but I think they’ve actually gotten better, material-wise, with each successive album; meaning their latest, Sky Full of Holes, is their best, as far as I’m concerned. Last summer, when I saw them at Fuji Rock, I was disappointed that they only played three songs from the record, but figured, well, it’s a festival and, besides, the record had only been out a week at the time. But they played almost the same set that they did at Fuji, and with only one other song from Sky. They didn’t even play my two favorite songs from the album.

I had thought such disappointments would fade as I became older, but I guess they don’t. In a sense, I think the group takes its position as entertainers a bit too seriously; not so much because they played their obvious “hits,” but because they believe that people like the older songs better. I don’t have much desire to hear “Survival Car” or “Leave the Biker” or “Radiation Vibe,” all from the first album and which the band treats as canonical material, the latter invariably the set closer, augmented by cleverly tossed-off snippets of influential power pop. (“Jet,” “Mad World,” etc.) When the band came back for the encore and played “Cemetery Guns” from Sky, which Collingwood described as a “sad song,” followed by the equally poignant “I95,” I was thrilled, because it promised something more deeply felt. One of the virtues of FOW’s songs, and one they rarely get credit for, is just how honest they come across emotionally. But it was a short-lived thrill, because they had to play “Stacy’s Mom.” I don’t want to second guess Collingwood and Schlesinger’s reasoning for choosing these songs, but cult bands should understand that anything they do is going to be acceptable, and obscure stuff may be even more appreciated. I just wish they had approached their excitable Tokyo fans as real friends rather than just another audience. They don’t need to be won over.

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