POP: ANDY GILL ON ALBUMS
Fountains of Wayne
Widely heralded as the next big American thing, Fountains of Wayne take meticulous care not to stumble upon anything new or innovative on their debut album. Sticking religiously to the catchy jangle-pop of the single "Radiation Vibe", they know that the fences jumped easiest are those set the lowest.
So though Fountains of Wayne has a pleasant pop sheen superficially reminiscent of all the usual Sixties B-bands - Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys, etc - there is a cold, almost ruthlessly methodical manner about most of the songs that is completely at odds with the spirit of restless innovation at the heart of those originators. Listening to something such as the surf song "Survival Car", you're always painfully aware of the musical equation behind it - in this case, Beach Boys/ Ramones bi-coastal pastiche. It's no surprise to learn that the group's songwriters, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, were responsible for the naggingly familiar title- song to Tom Hanks' movie That Thing You Do (not included here); so adept are they at mining pop history for hooks and styles that they are probably the closest American equivalent to Noel Gallagher.
Lyrically, though, they are much closer to the Damon Albarn of The Great Escape, rattling out a series of cliched character vignettes of staggering inconsequentiality. The secretary of "Sick Day", the motorcyclist of "Leave the Biker", the Hispanic hipster of "Joe Rey" - all are sketched in the flimsiest possible terms, briefly condescended to, then discarded before actually having anything to do, like a sad parade of Pirandellian husks in search of a narrative. You wouldn't turn them off if they came on day- time radio, so adeptly do they restore the trivial to pop, but looking for anything more substantial here would be a thankless task. As the old joke goes, there are hidden shallows to the Fountains of Wayne.
Crescent City Soul - The Sound of New Orleans
EMI CRESCENT 1
New Orleans is often characterised - as much by its own tourist agencies as by outsiders - as a jazz town, despite the fact that little jazz of note has come out of the city since the Second World War. Rather, the post-war musical history of the town is one which has seen a greater development and variety of R&B styles than anywhere else in America, as this remarkably diverse four-CD treasure trove makes clear.
Based mainly on EMI's ownership of the Minit and Imperial catalogues, Crescent City Soul ranges non-chronologically across the city's musical history, from early R&B shouters such as Big Joe Turner and Roy Brown through rock'n'rollers such as Fats Domino and Little Richard, bluesmen Lowell Fulson and Guitar Slim, pianists Professor Longhair and Dr John, to Seventies soul acts such as Labelle and Aaron Neville.
Most of the collection's 119 tracks are the work of two extraordinary producers - Dave Bartholomew in the Fifties and Allen Toussaint through the Sixties and Seventies. Both were highly individualistic producers who brought a stamp of originality to all their work. Bartholomew's greatest successes were the huge tranche of hits he recorded with Fats Domino, which were extremely sophisticated productions by the standards of the time. Toussaint's best-known work was via such artists as Lee Dorsey, The Meters, Chris Kenner and Irma Thomas. Both men, however, had a keen grasp of the distinctive rhythm peculiar to the city, the rhumba-flavoured afterbeat which links Professor Longhair & His Shuffling Hungarians' seminal "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" (1949) with Dr John's "Right Place, Wrong Time" (1973), and which, via the city's powerful radio transmitter, was instrumental in the development of ska and reggae rhythms in Jamaica. It is present throughout this splendid set, a naggingly infectious beat which, once heard, can never be shaken.
Freedy Johnston's third album finds him in exactly the opposite position to the Fountains of Wayne. Never Home is littered with routinely excellent songs and works of depth and subtle insight which are often undersold by too enigmatic a melody or too basic an arrangement.
Compared to the Fountains' cliche characters, these songs are peopled with, well, real people, in problematic situations pregnant with possibilities. The shoplifter savouring the possibility of capture in "On the Way Out", the dead pilot's son who can never fly again in "Western Sky", the girl realising her boyfriend is an arsonist in "Gone to See The Fire", the hapless lover who refuses to acknowledge the deterioration of his relationship in "One More Thing to Break" - these are highly charged, revealing portraits, painted with great economy and lateral lyrical strokes.
Taken as a whole, they depict an America in which things drift inexorably apart, a culture of anomie and atomisation from which the social glue is slowly seeping away. But there is a difference between great songs and great performances, and these deserve much better settings than the bland, guitar-based arrangements that Johnston and producer Danny Kortchmar allow them here.
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