Power pop sounds simple. Take a couple of big, bright chords, create a catchy melody, add Beach Boys-esque harmonies, and make sure the song checks in at less than three minutes in length. Rinse and repeat.
Of course, it only sounds simple because expert craftsmen like Adam Schlesinger make it appear effortless.
Schlesinger, one-half of the brilliant songwriting team that made up power-pop mavens Fountains of Wayne, has died at the age of 52 from complications arising from coronavirus.
If that band were all he was known for, it would be enough to leave a strong legacy. But Schlesinger used his talents to the fullest to add to the rich musical tapestry of the past 25 years.
He won a Grammy for his work on “A Stephen Colbert Christmas.” He was an Emmy-winning songwriter for TV’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” for which he wrote or co-wrote 157 songs over the course of four seasons. He was nominated for two Tonys for the musical “Cry-Baby.”
And his Oscar nomination in 1997 was for writing the indelible song that propelled the Wonders (or One-ders, if you prefer) to the top of the charts in the Tom Hanks film, “That Thing You Do.” The tune is heard in various iterations eleven times during the movie and it doesn’t ever get old. A key quality of Schlesinger’s writing is that it rewards repeated listens, instead of punishing it.
However, it’s Schlesinger’s work with Fountains of Wayne for which he will be most remembered. He wasn’t the front man and singer; that was Chris Collingwood, the band’s other songwriter. Schlesinger played bass and added backing vocals to the band’s sweet, hook-filled pop songs featuring lyrics about finding girls, hanging out with friends, and those tricky, mundane details of everyday life. The New Jersey-based band often peppered their songs with references to places, roads, and well-known figures around the region.
The band’s sound? It was power pop through and through. In various stages of their career, Big Star, The Cars, The Sweet, and Devo all can be heard as reference points. Schlesinger also has pointed to Randy Newman as a touchstone, which makes sense given Schlesinger’s attention to detail in lyrics and his ability to build a narrative around seemingly small things.
The band first earned notice with their self-titled debut album in 1996, featuring the luminescent single, “Radiation Vibe”. There was, from the start, a clear picture of how devoted Schlesinger and Collingwood were to the songwriting craft. Listen to how “I’ve Got a Flair” twists sideways the melody in the coda to “Layla”. “Barbara H.” is a sharply-written ode to a girl who can’t stand the radio playing the same pop songs over and over again.
A follow-up album, Utopia Parkway, added a full-time lead guitarist and drummer, fattening the band’s sound and providing a stable line-up for the future. “Denise,” a should-have-been smash, was big at college radio. “Red Dragon Tattoo,” is a buoyant, bubbly tune about a guy who tries to impress a girl by getting a tattoo to look “more like that guy from Korn.” But the main single from the album, “Troubled Times,” stalled on the charts and Fountains of Wayne were dropped by their label.
Following the disappointment, the band nearly split. Collingwood, in particular, wondered if all their work was worth anything in the end. They regrouped to write songs for their biggest commercial hit, Welcome Interstate Managers. It’s also arguably the band’s creative peak, featuring a brilliant semi-song cycle for those exiting college age and entering adulthood, starting careers in the 9-to-5 workplace.
Songs like “Bright Future In Sales,” “All Kinds of Time,” “Little Red Light,” and “Hey Julie” are perfect slices of the type of daily life activities and thoughts most take for granted, each set to earworm-worthy hooks.
The album includes an immaculate trio of songs, ordered consecutively on side one, which are among the best musical moments of the decade. “Hackensack” is a wistful, bittersweet tale of a guy who, against all evidence, won’t give up hope that the star actress with whom he attended high school one day will return home. “No Better Place” is the finest song the band ever recorded, telling the story of a man failing to convince his girlfriend to stay, then drowning his sorrows in alcohol. “Valley Winter Song” has emerged to become a fan favorite, using the season as a metaphor for the tough times life throws your way.
Its lead single, “Stacy’s Mom” became a smash, thanks in large part to a video played relentlessly by MTV and featuring model Rachel Hunter as the titular character. The band included numerous visual nods to their musical heroes in The Cars. In fact, the first ten seconds of the song so closely resemble that band’s “Just What I Needed” that Cars leader Ric Ocasek wondered for a time why Fountains of Wayne weren’t paying for sampling his song.
Following up the enormous success was an “odds and sods” collection, Out-of-State Plates. Stellar unreleased songs (“Maureen,” “The Girl I Can’t Forget”) were presented alongside various B-sides and bonus tracks. The album also highlighted the band’s eclectic taste in cover material (Jackson Browne, ELO, & Bacharach/David, bit also Britney Spears).
Two other all-new albums followed, both containing quality, but compromised, material. Traffic and Weather was recorded as Collingwood suffered from depression and alcoholism, limiting his contributions. The making of Sky Full of Holes coincided with the deterioration of the songwriters’ relationship, to the point both attended therapy sessions to work through problems. Ultimately, it was decided the band would finish the record, tour behind it, and go their separate ways.
In the years that followed, Schlesinger continued releasing music with his other band, Ivy, and was involved in a power-pop supergroup, Tinted Windows, which also featured ex-members of Cheap Trick and Smashing Pumpkins. He later produced and pulled together writers to create material for a surprisingly strong Monkees album, Good Times!, released in 2016.
Ten days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Fountains of Wayne appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” to perform the Kinks classic song “Better Things”.
Here’s wishing you the bluest sky/
And hoping something better comes tomorrow/
Hoping all the verses rhyme/
And the very best of choruses to/
Follow all the doubt and sadness/
I know that better things are on the way
It was a comforting message and a powerful performance in a confusing, uncertain time.
We probably could use the same medicine right about now. It might not be a bad idea to seek out some of those bright chords, catchy melodies, and gorgeous harmonies that Schlesinger left behind.