Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Love Songs for Low-Level Bureaucrats

Remember those essay questions you used to get on high school and college tests?

You know the ones: Compare and contrast the Ottoman Empire to the German Empire under Kaiser Wilmelm. Compare and contrast the Levelers of 17th century Britain to the Leninists of post-revolution Russia.

Yup, today – and hopefully every week – we're going to do a little comparing and contrasting.

Only it's going to be a lot more fun. And you won't wind up with a C-plus.

The subject is music, folks. And the musicians in today's two-fer are Donald Fagen and Fountains of Wayne, who both released songs within the last two years on similarly unusual themes.

Yep, they wrote odes to low-level bureaucrats.

Take Fagen's "Security Joan,"off his excellent 2006 release Morph the Cat, the conclusion of an album trilogy that began with The Nightfly in 1982. The post-9/11 paranoia explored in this album includes this neat ditty about falling in love with an airport screener who keeps the protagonist from making his flight on time.

And then there's "Yolanda Hayes," from the Fountains post-"Stacy's Mom" 2007 CD Traffic and Weather.

Musically, I have to say, these songs rock.

On "Security Joan," Fagen's got all of his fail-safe elements going into overdrive: The slinky groove, the jazzy riff, the unexpected melodic changes and the infectious chorus.

Download "Security Joan"

On "Yolanda Hayes," the Fountains once again go to the Kitchen sink with an opening that recalls the Beatles "Getting Better," the catchy "Who Do You Love" refrain and a late appearance from a Chicago-style horn section. (What can I tell you? I'm a sucker for blaring trumpets)

Download "Yolanda Hayes"

But here's where the songs diverge for me: In the lyrics.

"Security Joan" is a gentle ride through the hapless life of its protagonist, one that flows seamlessly with the album's themes of alienation, paranoia and helplessness in the face of the new world order. Fagen is not be entirely straight-faced, to be sure, but there's no sense of cruelty to his lyrics.

Not so with the boys from Fountains of Wayne. In fact, on this song, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger come off as a couple of frat boys laughing behind Ms. Hayes' back. Lyrics like "The hours pass, the days go by/But has anybody/Really tried/To cross that line/ To get inside?" make these boys from New Jersey seem like teenagers snickering in the corner.

Which is, I think, the problem with FOW's latest CD. By now, their shtick is well known. But in this set of songs, all the satirization of middle-class culture is getting a little old. Collingwood and Schlshinger come off as misogynistic and snarky, rather than astute and satirical. It's a fine line to be sure – one that an artist like Randy Newman almost always manages to traverse – but one which the Fountains need to pay close attention to in the future.

No comments: