And then there's Fountains of Wayne. The New York band, a burbling font of pop perfection amid the arid desert of whiny nü-metal and chirpy pop-punk noise, owes its slot on the Buzzfest roster to the success of "Stacy's Mom," a bouncy Cars-influenced pop tune that angle-starved critics have hailed as the new millennium's "Mrs. Robinson."
It's easy to see why "Stacy's Mom" was a corporate radio staple this summer. "Stacy's mom has got it going on," guitarist-vocalist Chris Collingwood sings as the chorus churns along, no doubt sparking the following exchange in high school hallways around North America: "Hey, Brad, you know, I've always wanted to tell you that your mom is, like, hot." "My mom? Dude, that's so sick."
FOW singer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Schlesinger, on the phone from his New York studio, concedes that the lyrical subtleties in the song might be lost on the 13-year-olds who have downloaded a copy. First, how many of them snap to the fact that the lusting kid in question is a loser rather than a stud? How many of them cop to the element of detachment that's lacking from most of the ridiculous woe-is-my-teenage-self thirtysomething bands out there?
"We've always sought to strike some kind of balance between humor and personality," Schlesinger says. "But the main difference in that song and the others is that the narrator is not us. We're not pretending to be a teenage kid when we sing the song. We take the storytelling perspective."
We should hope so, considering he and Collingwood are in their mid-thirties. Still, there's an even bigger reason why Welcome Interstate Managers -- the band's latest disc -- deserves to be considered Generation Y's Pet Sounds. Variety, eclecticism, whatever you want to call it.
Schlesinger has it pegged, too. "I think people who really know this band can put that song into perspective with what we're all about. If the song gives kids a reason to check out the whole CD, that's all you can hope for. But they won't find 12 other rewrites of 'Stacy's Mom.' "
Indeed, Interstate Managers is a collection of disparate pop influences, a celebration of what pop can be rather than yet another dreary catalog of its current limitations. It helps that they aren't afraid to be funny. When Schlesinger and Collingwood met at Williams College near Boston in the late 1980s, they jammed on songs by artists they both admired -- the Beatles, R.E.M., Elvis Costello and Crowded House -- but bonded mainly because of their penchant for songs laced with "goofy" humor.
More than 15 years later, those influences are all over Interstate Managers, but in ways the duo couldn't have imagined during their college days. Certainly all of the songs and styles -- from the pop sheen of "Stacy's Mom" to the haunting vibe of "Halley's Waitress" -- share an organic feel and multiple harmonies. The band also has a tendency to flip-flop on the way it deploy vocals. Sometimes, they are complementary to the musical vibe; elsewhere, they are in diametric opposition.
In "Valley Winter Song" the melancholy, earnest alt-country licks are pure Blue Rodeo, matching the mood of the guy who's being dragged down by the prospects of another bleak winter "in a dark house with the windows painted shut." And in "All Kinds of Time" the notion of using a story about a football quarterback as a life skills metaphor is interesting enough, but ladle on a syrupy Coldplay-style vocal delivery and it gets downright weird.
All of this stuff is held together by a theme of sorts. Interstate Managers is stocked with delusional, pathetic underachievers who are trying to get their shit together to enjoy, as one title has it, a "Bright Future in Sales." Another, "Hackensack," tells the tale of a former record store clerk, now refinishing homes with his dad, who dreams of scoring with a high school classmate who has gone on to become a movie star.
There's plenty of fodder here for a Clerks or Office Space sequel. "Yeah, at one point Chris and I did a lot of office temp work in New York, all kinds of crazy office jobs that were pretty brutal," recalls Schlesinger. "Once I had to transcribe a biotechnology litigation seminar, for three days straight with headphones on listening to lawyers going on endlessly."
After the two college buddies started forming bands, they found out that the music business can be just as ephemeral as those temp jobs. "We had all kinds of different bands with these crazy names but never stuck to one project very long," says Schlesinger. "Around 1990 we signed a deal under the name Wallflowers. And eventually having to sell the exclusive rights to the name to Jakob Dylan only gave us enough money to pay off the lawyers." (Another abandoned name, thank God: Three Men Who When Standing Side by Side Have a Wingspan of Over 12 Feet. Just call 'em TMWWSSBSHAWOOTF.)
After one of those record-company-disappears-with-the-profits horror stories with their band Pinwheel in the early '90s, Schlesinger and Collingwood took a few years off before releasing the first FOW collaboration in 1996. (Meanwhile, Schlesinger had started Ivy, his continuing side-project band that features French vocalist Dominique Durand.) Taking time off seems to work wonders for the Schlesinger-Collingwood mind-set.
"Chris in particular felt kind of burned out, and he was just spending time at home and not doing much," Schlesinger says. "At one point, though, I did have to ask him if he was into [re-forming] because I had a bunch of songs and wanted to do something, and luckily he came around. Hey, we've been doing this together for half of our lives. Guess you just need a break to get excited again."
Of course, even though the band self-financed the record, there were still some uneasy moments between the time they started shopping it around and Virgin Records affiliate S-Curve took it on. "We got a lot of 'Well, this is the kind of stuff I would listen to, but how could I sell it to radio?' "
Apparently, those labels wouldn't know a hit single even if Stacy's mom -- dripping wet and wrapped only in a bath towel -- delivered it to them on a velvet pillow.