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Nashville Scene Rock Steady

Three bands stay true to rock 'n' roll, with mixed results

By Noel Murray

MAY 24, 1999:  Have you looked at Billboard lately? The day I'm writing this, the top 10 albums break down as three country acts, two rap acts, one soul group, one opera singer, a classical movie soundtrack, one bubblegum pop diva, and Cher. By the time this gets published, Ricky Martin and Robbie Williams will probably skew the list further. Today's American seems to want songs every which way except with backbeats and guitar solos. But even as trend-spotters write their annual "rock-is-dead" feature, three new records--by Fountains of Wayne, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the Lilys--complicate the debate. These discs may not become bestsellers, but they do suggest that rock 'n' roll still has a viable place in American pop music.

Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau recently described the music of the Lilys as "amplified watercolors," by which he meant that the Boston-based Rickenbacker fiends are attractive on the surface, but have no depth. Personally, I've seen watercolor paintings that I consider fine art, and I find the Lilys' music much deeper than the frug-happy nostalgia trip that it appears to be. At the least, I give the band credit for taking a seemingly played-out format (guitar-bass-drums/verse-chorus-bridge) and making it avant-garde.

The Lilys' new album, The 3 Way, continues the group's recent trend toward upbeat songs that start with a Kinks-y riff and then wander freely. A typical Lilys cut these days sounds like the band is channel-surfing through classic television and stopping whenever they see teenagers dancing. On "Socs Hip," the first five seconds feature skittery, Jackson 5-style guitar, the next 15 a lush, Herman's Hermits chorale; then the song settles in for 30 seconds of flamenco-kissed acoustic balladry. A Duane Eddy-inspired guitar lick carries the song into the remaining six minutes, which feature strings, harp, piano, sax, and shifting styles from doo-wop to barrelhouse.

Apparently, bandleader Kurt Heasley is searching for music to match his meandering, story-like lyrics. He must be opposed to rhyming, judging by the way his lines rarely meet; instead, his idea of a lyrical pattern is to start each verse with the same phrase. These lines from "Dimes Make Dollars" give some idea of Heasley's mad method: "The meeting's at the Highview Motel/Just show up we'll meet you/With the camera's eye/In your 4-4-2 Oldsmobile/Park right next to mine." Tossing around approximate rhymes, Heasley creates an impressionistic world of intrigue, populated by suave, shadowy figures.

This technique can be unsatisfying for people used to pop songs with reverberating guitars and tambourines--the kind you can sing in the shower. There's no traditional closure in a Lilys song. There are melodies and riffs and words that repeat, but everything is just slightly off-kilter--familiar yet maddeningly alien. The challenge for the listener is to follow Heasley's train of thought, and to wait for that always explosive, triumphant moment when he returns to the main chord progression.

The Lilys' new record won't mean much to the "rock-is-dead" crowd, who will probably find the band's artsy craftiness a case in point for their argument. That's to be expected: When a medium is in decline, its devotees can be found talking up pale distinctions, like fanboys at a comic book convention comparing their favorite inkers. Regardless, I find the Lilys' achievement exciting, however minor it may be. They've dissected garage-rock the way a cubist might paint a bowl of fruit.

Critical reaction to Tom Petty's recent work has been markedly different from the ho-hums greeting the Lilys. Almost all the reviews of his Echo have begun with some variation on, "Thank goodness Petty never changes." Granted, he has a classic sound, and few people are bigger fans of his best work than I am. But I'm not sure why his refusal to grow or develop is considered a good thing.

The problem with the Heartbreakers' doggedly anti-innovative style is that it's only as good as the songs. When Petty dreams up a good melody and heartfelt lyric, he can make rock 'n' roll sound like the only music worth making. But the 15-song Echo is ridden with tepidly performed, underwritten filler--obvious and hoary. It seems Petty's method--pick a key and some chords, then call up the band--has driven him into a rut.

Echo has choice cuts in "Room at the Top," "Lonesome Sundown," and "About to Give Out," but it's unlikely to win new converts to good old rock 'n' roll, or to wake up the choir. There's a fine line between craftsmanship and formula, and Petty is edging dangerously close to the latter.

Just when some fogey threatens to give traditional rock songcraft a bad name, along comes a wunderkind to invest the old limbs with some new flexibility. Fountains of Wayne is the power-pop project of Adam Schlesinger, who also dabbles in swanky adult contemporary with his band Ivy and may be best known for writing the snappy title song for That Thing You Do.

To prepare for his FoW sessions, I think Schlesinger must have reverted to age 14, when he hung out in the arcade and listened to the Cars and Quarterflash. Utopia Parkway, the group's immensely pleasurable second album, is a series of songs about suburban New Jersey, where the kids aren't exactly born to run, but they are born to drive around and listen to "Born to Run." The album's opening lines rival Tom Petty's best: "Well, I've been saving for a custom van/And I've been playing in a cover band." For the next 45 minutes, Schlesinger and cowriter Chris Collingwood sing about Coney Island, tattoos, strip malls, laser shows, proms, and other teenage kicks.

The music is blessedly effortless and sounds how '80s Top 40 might've sounded if '70s power-pop had been more commercially successful--if Pat Benatar and Loverboy had drawn their inspiration from The Shoes and Big Star rather than following in the footsteps of Aerosmith and Boston. Songs like "Red Dragon Tattoo," "Denise," and "Go Hippie" are ready-made summer hits, unstoppable monsters made to be played over municipal swimming pool loudspeakers. With their big beats, buzzing guitars, spacy organ fills, hand claps, and lyrics about .38 Special, FoW evoke the joy of great rock songs while simultaneously performing great rock songs. They're singing about the pleasures of recreation while having a great time themselves.

The only real complaint about Utopia Parkway is that it retains some aspects of Fountains of Wayne's lesser debut album. Lead singer Collingwood has a smooth, featureless voice, which can make the band's clever, knowingly barbed lyrics seem arch and condescending. But there's less self-congratulatory snideness this time out, and a lot more songs like "Troubled Times" and "Hat and Feet," which display actual empathy for those in romantic dismay.

Regardless, Utopia Parkway is darn close to a guitar-pop masterpiece, a revelation on the order of Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend. Schlesinger has reached that remarkable stage that certain talented musicians go through--he's accepted his facility for writing polished songs and now wants to do something with that skill to make the world take notice. While the Lilys are looking to obscure the obvious (and do so tantalizingly) and Tom Petty is looking to stay the course (on an increasingly worn, circular path), Fountains of Wayne are reaching out to the listener, looking to connect. With Utopia Parkway, they hit hard and leave a mark.

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