Adam Schlesinger’s 30 Essential Songs

Adam Schlesinger’s 30 Essential Songs

The shelf life of a power-pop band is short. The Knack had an album and a half. Big Star had three. The Raspberries catalog could make for a fantastic first half of a CD.

Fountains of Wayne, fronted by the songwriting and producing team of Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, seemed to have silos full of hooks. Like Lennon and McCartney, they shared joint credit, even if only one of them wrote a song. In five studio albums and one compilation, they sang almost exclusively about 18 to 28-year-olds living on the East Coast. They had one huge hit, “Stacy’s Mom,” but wrote dozens of funny or sympathetic songs about Gen X misfits, like an earthbound Beach Boys serenading the suburbs rather than the sea.

In addition to his main band, Schlesinger, who died on Wednesday of the coronavirus, formed several side groups and wrote for the TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” as well as the stage. Here are 30 of his essential songs. (You can listen to the playlist on Spotify here.)

Sung to a girl who’s with the wrong guy, by a guy who thinks he’s the right guy. The first song on the first Fountains of Wayne album is lightly adorned power pop that became richer on subsequent albums, while keeping the downtrodden, slightly resentful tone. As in a Randy Newman song, the narrator has a bit too much confidence.

Nothing important ever happens in a Fountains of Wayne song. That’s kind of the point: The band wrote about the big dreams and tiny victories of people who never get anywhere. “Sick Day” describes a “hell of a girl” who’s stuck in a crummy office job, and while Schlesinger and Collingwood treat her with tenderness, the best they can foresee is that she might take a sick day (pause) soon. (The timing of that pause shows a keen comic sense.) It’s a gorgeous acoustic ballad, with a winking reference to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” after the third chorus, and it sketches out some ideas that came to perfection later in “Troubled Times.”

Fountains of Wayne recorded its first album in a week, for only $5,000, and at times, the low budget is not only obvious, it’s charming. “Leave the Biker” starts with a panned chicka-chicka guitar riff that sounds like a 10-year-old warming up at Guitar Center. Once again, our narrator is in love with someone who’s dating higher on the food chain — a biker with “crumbs in his beard from the seafood special.” And there’s, you guessed it, another winking Beatles rip at the end.

People who don’t like FOW complain that all it made is cute meta-pop full of references to other bands, but — ehh, you know what, that’s not wrong. This fourth selection from the band’s debut not only inverts the classic AOR imperative of rocking all night, it rhymes “care to” and “hairdo.”

Tom Hanks wrote, directed and appeared in “That Thing You Do!,” a 1996 movie about a mythical Erie, Pa. band who have one big hit in the mid-60s before it all falls apart on them. Crucially, the film needed a great retro song that a) sounded credibly like a British Invasion-styled song from, specifically, the summer of 1964; b) was great enough to have been a hit; and c) could stand up to being heard over and over in the movie. About 300 writers submitted songs for consideration, and Schlesinger’s song won. It was nominated for best original song at the Academy Awards and at the Golden Globes.

Second album, they’ve brought in a drummer and a lead guitarist to fatten the sound, and they’ve got a recording budget. “Utopia Parkway,” a midtempo harmony fest with a buzzing, distorted guitar line (they’ve also moved from Beatles references to nodding at the Cars), is narrated by a smug outer-borough wannabe with a custom van and a cover band who has never turned from boy to man and his baby doesn’t understand.

A nice guy can only stand so much rejection from the fairer sex before he gets drunk, buys some Bactine and a .38 Special CD, takes the train to Coney Island and signs up for a fierce-looking tattoo. The singer does it only to court a girl, who, you can be sure, will not be moved by the gesture. “Red dragon tattoo is just about on me/I got it for you, so now do you want me?” the dim bulb pleads. The band’s first absolute power-pop masterpiece.

The elegant pre-chorus is another indication of songwriting growth, and Collingwood brings the right amount of pathos and empathy to a lyric about a boy pining for a girl and imagining it will work out. Bittersweet enough to soundtrack a season-ending, broken teen romance for a series on the CW Network, and that’s high praise.

They’ve moved from the Beatles to Wings in this brief, chunky rocker about a great tristate ritual for stoned tristate teens: the laser show at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Collingwood adds grainy excitement to his boyish voice as he sings, “We’re gonna sit back, relax, watch the stars/James and Jason, Kirk and Lars.” It’s not mockery, it’s not parody or irony, it’s a celebration of teenage thrills for kids from Bridgeport, Westport, Darien.

A new twist on songs about high school: It’s written from an older vantage of disappointment (“We’ll grow old and lose our hair/It’s all downhill from there”) but builds to a brave, innocent defiance in the chorus (“Tonight we’ll reach for the stars/We’ll rent expensive cars”). The arrangement is dominated by a dulcet string arrangement for two violins and a cello.

Schlesinger was part of a cosmopolitan pop trio fronted by Dominique Durand, a Frenchwoman who’d relocated to New York City. The highlight of its third full album is a shimmering ballad, focused on Durand’s soft-focus voice, which dives into contemporary trip-hop. Nearly as good, on the same album: “Lucy Doesn’t Love You.”

Kay Hanley, who was the lead singing voice in the 2001 musical comedy film “Josie and the Pussycats,” wrote this on Twitter about Schlesinger, who penned the song: “His talent as a songwriter is so special, so enormous, it never overwhelms, only sweetens any airspace it inhabits.” Jabbing, on-the-beat guitar catapults this track, and the girl can’t figure out why the boy, who’s patently a shlub, won’t compliment her or laugh at her jokes.

Fountains of Wayne commemorated the post-recession bubble with a deft third album about young office workers in the midst of quiet crises — often restless, usually unfocused and probably drunk. It’s part John Cheever, part John Hughes. This slow-building rocker cycles around a great description of someone stuck in place: “I tried to change, but I changed my mind/Think I’ll have another glass of Mexican wine.”

Top 40 needed a song about hot moms, and this was the band to do it. Fountains of Wayne didn’t have a record deal when it wrote this (Schlesinger paid for the recording sessions), and the group shopped it to “just about everybody,” he said. Only S-Curve offered them a deal. The song hit No. 21 on the Billboard singles chart and earned a Grammy nomination.

When Ric Ocasek of the Cars heard “Stacy’s Mom,” he thought the band had sampled his own “Just What I Needed.” What could he have made of this, the most blatant, loving, skillful Cars rip-off in the band’s repertoire? The singer has a boring desk job and a girl who doesn’t love him, but at least he has his cordless phone. Hilarious, tragic.

The title is a cliché football announcers use when a quarterback isn’t being pressured by the defense, and Schlesinger gave the music a slow-motion tempo and arrangement, including lots of tremolo guitar effects. The narrator, who’s older than the self-assured quarterback, knows something the quarterback doesn’t: No one has all kinds of time.

Another very specific challenge from Hollywood: if a washed-up 1980s superstar were trying to make a comeback two decades later, what would his songs sound like? There are no jokes or clever quips in this power ballad, just a skyborne melody that, in the film Music and Lyrics, brings Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore together, and later, back together.

On Fountains of Wayne’s fourth album, it spent less time referencing the ’60s and ’70s bands it loved and more time seamlessly synthesizing them. “’92 Subaru” is an ecstatic rocker that evokes the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” and revisits the guy from “Red Dragon Tattoo,” who’s now fixing up his junker, on a budget, so he can win back a girl. Psst, it won’t work.

The melodies weren’t vanishing but the inspiration was, as people started writing off FOW as a one-hit wonder, which was besides the point. The songs were getting more adult, including this one, with brushed drums and layers of instrumental harmonies, about a couple who overcome the agonies of baggage claim. It was written and named for a record executive they’d worked with and his wife.

No one ever called FOW the voice of a generation, but no group wrote more songs about the economic tribulations and uncertainty of Gen X. The arrangement is tight — quarter-note piano, clipped organ hook, a trumpet section — there’s a loving Billy Joel reference (“Heart attack-ack-ack”), and our hero avoids a beating from his loan shark, at least for now.

It starts with a couple of old codgers in a diner, sends their waitress off to live in Liechtenstein, sends her German boyfriend all the way to Kentucky, and returns to the codgers. Everyone’s moving, no one’s content. Why hasn’t this been turned into a movie?

Schlesinger was game for most anything, including a supergroup. He played bass in Tinted Windows and wrote most of the songs, James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins played guitar, Taylor Hanson of Hanson sang and Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos manned the drums. This single from their lone album is like a term paper on the curative powers of whoa-whoa background vocals.

Their fifth and last album could’ve been called “More Songs About Tough Times and Bad Decisions.” Pals Richie and Ruben (rhymes with “don’t know what they’re doin’”) open a bar, it goes bust fast, and then we discover the narrator of this jazzy, bouncing song invested in that bar, and even gave them more money for a clothing line.

As host of the Tony Awards in 2011, the former Doogie Howser needed a big opening song. With “The Daily Show” writer David Javerbaum, Schlesinger devised this cheeky pitch for Broadway (“It’s no longer only for dudes who like dudes/Attention every breeder, you’re invited to the theater”) with a cleverness that never flags.

Over the course of four seasons, Schlesinger wrote or co-wrote 157 songs for this groundbreaking music comedy, an astoundingly fecund pace, in a huge variety of styles. The references in these songs were always clear within the first eight bars, and “Getting’ Bi,” a celebration of bisexuality from Season One, paid homage to Huey Lewis and the News (a bit of “Hip to be Square,” a smidgen of “The Power of Love”). “I Could if I Wanted To,” a loser’s self-deceiving lament from the same season, evokes second-level grunge ballads, and “What’ll It Be?” couldn’t love Billy Joel any more if it were married to him.

From Season Two, “We Tapped That Ass” takes a vaudeville approach to a duet between two male characters who recollect all the places they had sex (“On the table, you were willing and able”) with the show’s conflicted main character, Rebecca. And “Where’s the Bathroom,” a musical theater patter song for Rebecca’s awful mom, played by Tovah Feldshuh, is history’s greatest catalog of passive-aggressive behavior (“I see your eczema is back”). “The Fiddler on the Roof” violin pushes it over the top.

Here’s a ringer: not a song by Schlesinger, but a hilarious song about him, by the alt-country loose cannon Robbie Fulks. The guitar intro and his upper-tenor voice mimic Fountains of Wayne; the narrator, who’s stymied by a song he’s trying, phones up a hotline that gives arrangement advice by recommending the tricks that repeat throughout Fountains of Wayne songs. It’s not snide — you can’t emulate a band this closely unless you love them. Enduring advice for songwriters: “Try a wider interval!”


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