My favorite albums: ‘Utopia Parkway’

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Image from Atlantic Records.

I’ve always been a sucker for albums that aim for the pop-rock ideal: “Rubber Soul”/”Revolver”-era Beatles.

I’d put the Bangles’ “All Over the Place” in that group, along with Sam Phillips’ “Martinis & Bikinis” (which actually steals a riff from “If I Needed Someone”) and, of course, the long-lost Wonders album, “That Thing You Do!”

OK, there was no Wonders record. The band broke up not long after the “That Thing You Do!” single topped out at No. 2, and though Jimmy Mattingly’s Heardsmen had some success, the band would be completely lost to the ages if not for the 1996 Tom Hanks documentary.

Actually, there was no Wonders (or Oneders, as their hardcore fans call them), but when Hanks needed a title cut for his soundtrack album — a song that would have been a Top Five hit in 1964 — he put out the call for submissions. The winner was by a 28-year-old songwriter named Adam Schlesinger, who has turned out to be a terrific talent both on his own (he’s composed songs for several movies, TV shows and other musicians) and with the band he formed with his college friend, Chris Collingwood: Fountains of Wayne.

Fountains of Wayne may never return (“We spent more time fighting than recording” the most recent FoW record, “Sky Full of Holes,” Collingwood said in April), but it was amazing while it lasted. And the peak, I’d argue, was the group’s second album, 1999’s “Utopia Parkway.”

The group had more commercial success with its third album, “Welcome Interstate Managers,” and added more complexity to its two successors. But the whole package was there on “Utopia,” and what’s more, there’s not a bad cut on it. From the title song to the unusual Beach Boys-esque closer, “The Senator’s Daughter,” it’s a triumph.

Schlesinger and Collingwood could have easily sneered at their characters — the headbangers heading to the “Laser Show,” the lamentable Mrs. Carver in “A Fine Day for a Parade” — but one thing that sets “Utopia Parkway” apart from the weisenheimer scoffers of the ’90s is their empathy. (It’s a message that’s easily missed; even in their big hit, “Stacy’s Mom,” how many people pick up that the callow teenager narrating the song is talking to a lonely girl from a desperately broken home?)

“Prom Theme” is both amusing and wistful, a song told from the point of view of an 18-year-old thinking his life has peaked but written by a guy in his mid-30s who knows better:

We’ll go our separate ways
We’ll vanish in the haze
We’ll never be the same
We’ll forget each other’s names
We’ll grow old and lose our hair
It’s all downhill from there

Then there’s my favorite song on the album, “The Senator’s Daughter,” which manages to sound like floating in a swimming pool, not a care in the world, through a series of non-sequiturs:

Crossing guards start traffic jams
Soccer moms drive minivans
No one sees the anchorman on the instant replay
What does she say?
She say
Sha la la la la la

Play it back to back with “Surf’s Up” and you’ll be in a meditative zone for hours.

Not everybody’s a fan of “Utopia.” The humorless prigs at Pitchfork, in giving the album 5.1 out of 10, called the album “too nice.” “It’s suburbia, and how banal is that?” asked Brent DiCrescenzo.

I think they missed the finer points. There’s nothing wrong with nice or suburbia, especially if it’s accompanied by the wit, soul and feeling (not to mention catchy hooks) Fountains of Wayne bring to their observations. “Utopia Parkway” may be a street in Queens, but it’s as big as the whole country.

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