"Yolanda Hayes," the third song on Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather, the group's third album, not counting the two-disc covers and unreleased-tunes collection Out-of-State Plates, begins this way: "Quarter to three/At the DMV/That's when I saw her/She didn't see me/Behind window B/Explaining patiently/How she needs to see/Six forms of ID." That this vivid little snapshot of love blooming in a bureaucratic wasteland is set to a tune so instantly hummable is vintage Fountains of Wayne. Traffic and Weather might not be the unmitigated success of the band's 2003 Welcome Interstate Managers (which featured the bona fide hit "Stacy's Mom"), but it's so filled with hooks and wit that listeners will quickly remember why this band is a rare treasure.
Like a lot of other great pop acts, Fountains of Wayne's power springs from a pair of songwriters, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger. Schlesinger has had success writing for the movies, including the title song to Tom Hanks'1996 That Thing You Do! and the tunes that are a key component to this year's romantic comedy Music and Lyrics. When working as a team, Collingwood and Schlesinger marry a keen pop ear with lyrics that take the measure of the modern world — the traffic jams, dead-end jobs, the wait for luggage to arrive.
That last is the case in "Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim," a lovely, melancholy ballad propelled by acoustic guitars and "ba-ba-ba" backing vocals. The strained relationship at the heart of the song is summed up in a few lines with a chorus that nails the fatigue: "It's been a long, long day/Can't we just be on our way." That song is followed by "Strapped for Cash," a fleet, synth-and-horn-heavy number that bounces along like a lost 1980s classic.
Welcome Interstate Managers had added impact because of an overall concept that paired juvenile fantasies with tunes about the weariness of work. Traffic and Weather seems a little more tossed together, and its low points — "Planet of Weed" wants to be hip but is just dull, and "Fire in the Canyon" is singer-songwriter bland — are dispiriting. Still, what shouldn't be taken for granted is how terrific this album sounds, how Fountains of Wayne is able to give each song its own sonic signature, not to mention memorable choruses. Who knows? The next time you're waiting for your driver's license, you might find yourself singing these tunes to pass the time. — Werner Trieschmann