Worlds of Wayne : 'Utopia Parkway' CD Is a Meditation on an East Coast Street--but It's Not Far From Here

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Utopia Parkway is 3,000 miles from here, but even if you've never left Southern California, you know it well.

That's the impression one gets from listening to "Utopia Parkway," the new album by the sharp New York/New England pop-rock band Fountains of Wayne.

The album, and its keynote song, take their name from a street in Queens, the New York City borough that's part of Long Island, which is definitive of the vast stretch of housing tracts and shopping malls with no central city core that encircle New York City. Sound familiar? Orange County, and most of the Los Angeles area, is Long Island West, or vice versa.

That sense of recognition isn't deterred at all by the highly specific New York metro area milieu that serves as a backdrop for songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger as they sketch, with no small measure of irony, the lives of various suburban types. There's the naive club rocker with big dreams in "Utopia Parkway," the guy in "Red Dragon Tattoo" who thinks he can impress an indifferent woman with the right body art ("Now I look a little more like that guy from Korn," he sings), the thrill-seeking kids who get their kicks at a planetarium "Laser Show," the manic consumers of "The Valley of Malls," and the commuter facing a day of drudgery in "Sick Day," a prime track from the band's self-titled debut album from 1996.

In "It Must Be Summer," a climactic and typically catchy song from "Utopia Parkway," a guy searches all over the New York metropolitan area for an elusive girlfriend who has given him the slip.

"I think almost every person who lives on Utopia Parkway has e-mailed me," said Collingwood, 31, who first teamed with Schlesinger when they were teenage undergrads at Williams College in Massachusetts. But the idea wasn't just to flatter pure-pop fans from New York and environs, he said.

The Fountains of Wayne duo wanted to emulate the method behind one of the great bodies of pop-rock songwriting--Ray Davies' sublime work with the Kinks from 1966 to 1971, in which the albums "Face to Face," "Something Else," "The Village Green Preservation Society," "Arthur" and "Muswell Hillbillies" were in part a cumulative sketch of the suburban north London community where Davies and his bandmates grew up.

"Hopefully, ['Utopia Parkway'] has this sense of place in the way that old Kinks records do," Collingwood said. "They were singing about little towns in England, and it had a magic to it." Collingwood hopes the details in Fountains of Wayne songs will prod listeners to use their imaginations to conjure up the characters and settings moving through the songs, even if they wouldn't know Utopia Parkway from Harbor Boulevard.

Fountains of Wayne arrives on Harbor Boulevard tonight, headlining the Galaxy in Santa Ana. The band--with Collingwood on guitar and lead vocals, Schlesinger on bass and harmony singing, plus guitarist Jody Porter and former Posies drummer Brian Young--brings along one of the odder histories of any recent-vintage rock band.

After college, Collingwood moved to Boston and worked as a computer programmer for a bank. Schlesinger landed in New York City and formed the band Ivy. Collingwood tired of the bank routine and moved to New York, and the two teamed up for some informal songwriting and recording. That turned into a major-label deal with Atlantic--the same label that had signed Ivy.

What's more, just as the "Fountains of Wayne" release emerged in '96, so did the film "That Thing You Do!," featuring a catchy, spirit-of-'65 title song that Schlesinger wrote after director Tom Hanks put out word that he needed a period piece to serve as the signature pop confection of the film's fictional one-hit-wonder band, the Wonders. The track was featured almost incessantly in the film, and received a best-song nomination for an Oscar.

Fountains of Wayne steadfastly refuse to play it. "We've been saddled with it," Collingwood said. "People shout for it and stuff, and I do my best to ignore them. It really has nothing to do with our band. It got us a lot of attention we wouldn't have gotten, but it created a lot of misconceptions"--including one that the band must be Schlesinger's vehicle, rather than an equal partnership.

As for Schlesinger's dual citizenship in two major-label bands (Ivy has since switched to Epic), Collingwood said it thus far hasn't hampered Fountains of Wayne.

"I don't know how he does it, actually. I'm exhausted enough being in one band. When I'm home sleeping and recovering [after a tour], he's recording with Ivy. He has what you'd call a classic Type-A personality."

As he spoke from a San Francisco hotel room, Collingwood gave a running narrative on the progress of that day's Maury Povich show, from a cello-playing 9-year-old dwarf to another 9-year-old with "big-jaw disease" and a third with no legs.

"That guy's a moron. I'll turn him off. The worst thing about it is it's thrown into this heroic context: 'Look how brave these people are who have overcome their disabilities.' But it's just exploitation."

The pop equivalent of Maury Povich might be the novelty song--a way of drawing a crowd while appealing to the common human enjoyment of being titillated or lightly amused. When the subject of Barenaked Ladies came up--its ascension as a pure-pop band selling millions of records with an approach not unlike Fountains of Wayne's--Collingwood scoffed. "Nobody would have given them the time of day if they didn't have a big, dumb novelty hit ['One Week']. I'd rather be unsuccessful and good than successful and bad."

Fountains of Wayne--named after a novelty store in Wayne, N.J., in the area where Schlesinger grew up--almost got sucked involuntarily into novelty's vortex, Collingwood said, when it covered Britney Spears' teen-pop dance hit, ". . . Baby One More Time," intending it as an extra track on their current single, "Denise."

"We kind of gave it a Beatles treatment. We did it because we liked the song, not because we wanted to have a big, dumb novelty hit. The clear message we got [from executives at Atlantic] was 'If you put this as the third track on the single, we're going to treat it as the single.' So we pulled it off."

Collingwood, whose reedy voice can recall the likes of Freedy Johnston, Paul Simon, Graham Nash and even Gilbert O'Sullivan, says he isn't even a rock 'n' roll hero in his own household. "Barbara H.," a song from the band's first album, is based on his wife's indifference to rock music, including his own. Schlesinger's wife is the same way, Collingwood said, and neither musician minds.

"I love her anyway. There's more to life than pop music. But we've both had the same conversation with our wives: I was sitting in my studio at home [in Northampton, Mass.], listening to music. She says, 'When you're listening to music you're not doing anything else but listening to it.' It's incomprehensible [to her] that you would just listen and concentrate on a song. I wonder how many people are like that?

"I think that's why the radio is so terrible, because nobody cares," he added. "These days all the airwaves are packed with macho stuff. Americans in particular, more than anywhere else you play, want to have a singer who had a tortured childhood and is baring his soul for everybody. The format-driven bands that get on the radio today have the angry baritone. I wish there was room for tenors now, the high, cherubic voices I grew up with. I can listen to the schmaltziest, cheesiest song by Bryan Adams, just to listen to his voice. The same with Mariah Carey. She sends chills up my spine, even though it's just bubble gum."

* Fountains of Wayne, Peoplemover and Owsley play tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $13.50-$15.50. (714) 957-0600.

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