Fountains of Wayne
Back before "Stacy's Mom" made 'em semi-famous, New Jersey's Fountains of Wayne were languishing in semi-obscurity.
After all, prior to that catchy ditty and "Welcome Interstate Managers," the 2003 disc that featured it, the Fountains had issued a pair of fine but hardly noticed CDs (1996's self-titled debut and 1999's "Utopia Parkway") that, in retrospect, were clearly album-of-the-year contenders.
So even if "Interstate" wasn't the band's best, only a heartless rock snob would begrudge the group and its chief songwriters, Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, their good fortune: Nobody paid much attention to Blondie before they whipped up "Heart of Glass," either.
With that as a backdrop, "Out-of-State Plates," the Fountains' new release of B-sides and rarities, should open the ears of those who've pegged the group as one-hit wonders.
Spanning two, packed-to-the-gills CDs, the album collects choice bonus material such as "Janice's Party" -- a spastic ode to a pal who throws soirees where "smoking is permitted inside" -- and "Comedienne," a bashing, subtext-rich tribute to a self-doubting performer who doesn't know if she's "killing or dying tonight."
Elsewhere, a haunting, minor-key take on Britney Spears's " . . . Baby One More Time," somehow manages to be both ironic and sincere.
The best bets, though, are the disc's two freshly minted keepers. On "Maureen," Collingwood stutters eloquently over a frantic melange of synthesizer swirl and power-pop crunch. "The Girl I Can't Forget," meanwhile, marries "Dating Game" horns to an instantly memorable chorus that should get the track parked on iPods everywhere.
Indeed, with an album of new material in the works, these tasty previews suggest the Fountains won't be semi-famous for long.
-- Shannon Zimmerman
VERSION 7.0: THE STREET SCRIPTURES
Guru has always been a rap artist whose brain is more agile than his mouth; at heart he's a wordsmith, not a rhyme-slinger, impressing with his message more than his flow. The approach worked well in Gang Starr, where Guru's partner DJ Premiere could fatten the mix with cinematic soundscapes; or with Guru's Jazzmatazz projects, which leaned on the horns for rhythmic elan.
But on "Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures," the Brooklyn rapper sticks to straight-up hip-hop as the genre and Solaar as his DJ, with perhaps predictably tepid results. Most of the mixes are relatively solid, but sonically spare and rhythmically static, exposing Guru's lack of maneuverability.
Worse, to anchor two songs and season some others, Solaar resorts to the already-threadbare gimmick (brought to prominence by Akon on "Lonely") of speeding an old pop hit to a chipmunk pitch for a melodic hook. Guru doesn't need helium-voiced pop dinosaurs warbling "Live and Let Die" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" as foils for his considerable muse. That becomes apparent when he drops the desultory, if de rigueur, battle lyrics attesting to his durability and spins shining, poignant, socially conscious narratives on "Feed the Hungry" and the magnificent closer, "What's My Life Like?"
A romantic flirtation with vocalist Jaguar Wright on the R&B-inflected "Talk to Me" is a surprisingly successful stylistic stretch. The other highlight is "Power, Money and Influence," but mostly because guest rappers Jean Grae and Talib Kweli spit vocabulary that pivots, tumbles and enlivens the pro-forma production, reminding the listener of what's been missing.
-- Britt Robson
Two Tons of Steel
Sometimes it takes a while to discover your newest favorite band, and sometimes it happens at just the right time. "Vegas" may be Two Tons of Steel's fifth disc since 2000, but until now the quintet has been one of those tantalizing homegrown secrets Texans like to keep. Fans lucky enough to stumble across it now will have their sing-out-the-windows soundtrack for the summer.
The ingredients are basic -- twangy Fender electric guitar (Dennis Fallon), upright bass (Ric Ramirez), drums (Chris Dodds), pedal steel (Denny Mathis) and a vocalist who strums acoustic guitar and writes some snappy songs (Kevin Geil) -- but there's a rock-and-roll element that smooths out the rockabilly and Texas country factors, making it all the more accessible.
The title track is one of those you sing along with the chorus the first time you hear it -- in this case, it's easy, just "bye, bye, bye," but, man, is it contagious. The Geil original "Havana Moon" borrows only the silky island vibe of Chuck Berry's number by the same name. The hard-driving "Unglued" and the beautifully arranged ballad "Can't Stay With You" make Geil a songwriter to watch.
But then come the covers: "Secret Agent Man," floating on Steel Guitar Hall of Fame inductee Mathis's wiry accents; the rockabilly standard "Red Hot"; a countrified version of Van Halen's take on John Brim's "Ice Cream Man"; and -- yikes! -- a reverential two-step version of the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," drowning in pedal steel.
We've heard enough. Now, fellas, how about a tour that brings you around before fall?
-- Buzz McClain