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Fountains of Wayne

Welcome Interstate Managers
S-Curve Records

My history with power-pop band Fountains of Wayne is one of long, unpleasant trips. Twice, I've bailed town to catch their singer Chris Collingwood play with his side band, the Gay Potatoes. When this long-overdue album hit stores, I made sure to get to one early. Early enough that, in fact, the store's employees blankly stared at me. "Phantoms of what?" "Fountains of Wayne," said I.

This CD is their best yet, absolutely brimming with brilliant pop songs. While this is par for FoW's course, Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger's songwriting skills are blossoming in new ways. They're still able to bang out a hilarious should-be-a-hit (observe lead single "Stacy's Mom," with its crystalline chorus of, "Stacy's mom has got it goin' on"), but their skills with character sketching have improved dramatically since 1999's Utopia Parkway, their much-lauded suburban concept album. And the song "Hackensack" has the plainspoken sense of longing formerly reserved for Jimmy Webb.

There are a few sketchy songs: "All Kinds of Time" and "Peace and Love" among them, but the overall quality and long running time (16 tracks) draw any attention away from them. You can take your pick of a dozen of the best pop songs you'll hear this year.

Pernice Brothers

Yours, Mine, and Ours
Ashmont, 2003

Music, to some, has a profound emotional effect -- visceral, even. Repeated exposure to a song or record can drastically alter a person's moods; dizzying highs, the inexplicable lows, the desire for a later-embarrassing haircut. I'm one of those people, and I'm eyeing this CD with apprehension. It's the most melancholy record to come down the pike since... well, the last record Joe Pernice was involved in.

Unfortunately, this CD is too good to avoid. Pernice is one of the most talented lyricists and songsmiths working in music today. His lyrics don't skirt clich; they understand and play off the expectation for it. In "Number Two," he sings of how the city "lights up like a dirty dime," and on "Waiting for the Universe," he sings the nigh-perfect lyric: "I can say that I knew you when/ you could shine like a diadem."

While the music itself is something of a change for Pernice and company, it's still devastatingly pretty. The instrumentation is stripped down, without the lush, elegant string arrangements of 2001's incredible The World Won't End. This time around, they sound more like a rock band. They lead the disc with "The Weakest Shade of Blue," which, while still a nugget of pop perfection, is positively ballsy, with driving bass and a sunny yet demanding chorus of, "Could it be so wrong, so wrong?" Another great -- "Sometimes I Remember" -- is, to be blunt, the best New Order song that New Order never wrote. "Temptation": good. "Bizarre Love Triangle": good. ]

Weeks after it arrived, this CD is still sounding better and better every day. If I didn't have so much other good stuff to listen to, I'd be bedridden. Phew.

Ted Leo / Pharmacists

Hearts of Oak
Lookout! Records

Straight up: This album is mind-bogglingly great. Not only is it one of those no-bad-songs records, it's one without any "all right" songs. They're all so good, in fact, I'm going to avoid talking about them all and focus on one.

"I'm a Ghost" is one of the most perfect rock 'n' roll songs I've heard in years. It starts out with a fuzz bass, steady and kind of smart-assed drums, and a cascading, howling vocal line that perfectly complements the lyrics. "I'm a ghost, and I wanted you to know that it's taking all my strength to make this toast," Ted Leo croons. The guitar rings in, reasonably cheery but kind of menacing and noisy. Leo airs his grievances, and suddenly it happens. The awesome-est guitar solo ever. It's an exercise in sheer frustration, seeming to channel exactly what Leo can't put into words. "Ghost" keeps getting better. The song becomes more and more uneasy, until, immediately after, Leo eulogizes, "You can never talk to me again." The song absolutely explodes out of the speakers, with Leo harnessing a banshee wail as the guitars bring terrible ruin in a way that seems custom-built to prove to the nouveau garage-rockers that this, yes, this is how you do it.

The album follows thus.

-- Brian Arnot

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