Saturday, January 10, 2009

Week 33: "Valley Winter Song" by Fountains of Wayne

This week’s song is the third song I’ve written about by the band Fountains of Wayne. Earlier I wrote about their summery song, “Radiation Vibe,” and their cover of Jackson Browne’s autumnal song “These Days.” The season “Valley Winter Song” refers to is obvious.

Personally, I like many aspects of “Valley Winter Song.” I like that the song mentions Massachusetts. The valley, presumably, is some picturesque New England locale. The song makes me feel nostalgic. I like the song’s pleasing acoustic guitar. I like its gentleness and image of the snow “whiting out the streets.” But, what I like most about “Valley Winter Song” does not have to do with the song itself. Rather, I like it for reasons that can only be described as contextual.

The members of Fountains of Wayne are sort of the pop music laureates of the northern New Jersey suburbs. (In fact, several episodes of The Sopranos have scenes at a store called “Fountains of Wayne.” I have no idea if this store actually exists or not.) However, the band is also cynical and snarky. Often, their lyrics drip with disdain. On no album are they more negative than on their 2003 release Welcome Interstate Managers.

With tracks like “Hackensack” and “Bright Future in Sales,” the band has never sounded more cynical. This mood pervades the entire album. On “All Kinds of Time” they use a football metaphor to sing about the unpromising future of a young man. On “Fire Island,” they sing about teenagers throwing an alcohol-fueled house party while the parents are taking a tropical vacation. “Don’t you remember last December when they went to Steamboat Springs?” And, on the up-tempo, “Hey, Julie,” Julie’s boss is described condescendingly as a “mean little man with a clip-on tie and a rub-on tan” and as a “mean little guy with a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie.”

Perhaps Fountains of Wayne has reason to be resentful. Largely on the strength of the album’s extremely catchy single, “Stacy’s Mom,” Fountains of Wayne was nominated for the Grammy for “Best New Act” despite this being their third major label release and despite approximately a decade of musical excellence under their belts.

I picked up my copy of Welcome Interstate Managers in the fall of 2003 after I had seen them perform a fantastic free concert in Kansas City. The album didn’t work for me. The cynicism and derision was too pointed. And then “Valley Winter Song,” the sixth song on the album came on, and it was sweet. It was charming. It was redeeming. After listening to it once, I had to put it on again to make sure I hadn’t misheard it. It really was as tender as it sounded. It was a great song.

You can hear them perform "Valley Winter Song" live here.