A band whose time has (finally) come

Rachel Hunter may be a middle-aged mom, but she's still a bombshell. And now America has Fountains of Wayne to thank for reminding us of this not-so-subtle fact, as Hunter stars in the video supporting the nerdy Jersey rockers' hit, "Stacy's Mom."

That the band, which released its first album in 1996, would find mainstream acceptance with what amounts to a winking update of Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" clip was hardly a given.

Named for a lawn ornament shop in Wayne, N.J., Fountains of Wayne is hardly a party-hearty quartet. They're more Jon Stewart than Jon Bon Jovi, delivering a sonic version of a Cameron Crowe movie: geeky, winsome, funny, and sublimely eclectic.

"We're not, you know, Sonic Youth," says band cofounder Adam Schlesinger. "It's not an acquired taste. The music that we make is intended to be popular music."

Plaudits aplenty

Their friendly sound is finally catching on. Entertainment Weekly recently singled out the band as one of the year's breakout acts and they've landed a spot on PBS's "Austin City Limits" airing Dec. 20. Early next year the band will follow a tour of Europe with a trek across America.

The album they're supporting, last summer's "Welcome Interstate Managers," is the smartest and most enjoyable documentary about the jobs and relationships of suburbanites in recent memory. The 16-track collection clocks in at just under an hour, though one listen proves an addictive, finger-snapping joyride.

Buoyed by a jittery guitar line inspired by The Cars, "Stacy's Mom" is a typical Fountains of Wayne offering: punchy, compact, and loaded with stick-in-your-brain melodies. The band is invariably labeled as a descendant of the British Invasion and power pop - and one listen to "Welcome Interstate Managers," their third album - attests to the accuracy of those labels. If there is a misperception of the band, says Schlesinger, it's that their songs are filled with wacky irreverence.

"We use humor as a means to an end," he adds. "We don't want to be Weird Al."

Guitarist Chris Collingwood writes the bulk of the band's songs with Schlesinger, a multi-instrumentalist who plays bass, guitar, and keyboards. Guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young round out the lineup.

Schlesinger grew up in Montclair, N.J., and Collingwood in a small suburb near Philadelphia. The two met at tiny, almost-Ivy League-worthy Williams College, and never lost the sense of being tragically unhip. Although Schlesinger now lives in the ultra-trendy Chelsea section of New York, the band's songs still reflect a New Jersey perspective: watching the pretty people in Manhattan from an ineffable but infinite distance.

The Fountain runs dry

Fountains of Wayne released two albums with Atlantic Records before being dropped after 1999's "Utopia Parkway." Critics and record-store clerks raved over the band, but the big bang never arrived.

Frustrated, Schlesinger spent time producing other bands, performing in a side project, and doing some soundtrack composition. His first musical break came when Schlesinger was tapped to write the fictional 1960s hit "That Thing You Do" from the Tom Hanks movie of the same name. It garnered an Oscar nomination.

While Schlesinger cobbled together musical work, Collingwood took on computer programming work to pay the bills. Two years ago, VH1 called, asking for soundtrack music for an animated series based on Time pop-culture writer Joel Stein, a friend of the Fountains. With a steady paycheck in hand, Schlesinger and Collingwood began writing songs and planning a new album.

Just one catch, though: They didn't have a recording contract.

"We just decided to make a record and figure out a way to release it afterwards," Schlesinger says. "Our only goal was to make this record more varied sounding than the earlier ones. We wanted to try some stuff that was a little heavier, but also some songs that were a little more intimate, a little more acoustic."

A fresh start

By the time "Interstate Managers" was done, the Atlantic executive who initially signed them had launched a boutique label, S-Curve. He signed the band, setting the stage for unanticipated chart battles with Beyoncé, Dido, and John Mayer.

Just as important, the band expanded its songwriting reach. The Simon & Garfunkel-tinged lullaby "Valley Winter Song" mines new territory, as does the pedal steel-fueled country sampler "Hung Up on You."

At a time when many are disillusioned with the sagging economy and scandal-ridden corporations, Fountains of Wayne offers intimate character sketches of sunny cynics worn down by jobs that offer little fulfillment. In "Hey Julie," for instance, Collingwood tells his true love she is the only solace from a miserable, Dilbert-worthy office.

"We don't set out to be sociologists," says Schlesinger of the group's prescient cultural observations. "If something happens to strike a chord, it's certainly not because we brilliantly planned it that way."

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