Fountains of Wayne

"Traffic and Weather" (Virgin) - 3.5 stars

Fountains of Wayne have definitely got it going on. The power-pop crooners who brought us “Stacy’s Mom” and “Mexican Wine” are back again, and this time their trademarks—unexpected subject matter and high-energy refrains—are more pronounced than ever.

Mega-hit “Stacy’s Mom” dealt with teenage lust, but the band’s topics typically have far more gravity—and variety. “Traffic and Weather” addresses all its topics—from crushing on DMV workers to being the target of hitmen—with perceptive, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, wit.

The first two albums released by Fountains of Wayne, headed by New Jersey natives Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, were only moderately successful (read: largely ignored by the mainstream).

With their 2003 record, “Welcome Interstate Managers,” they broke into the world of VH1, MTV, and Grammy nominations. Fountains of Wayne were nominated for Best Pop Performance, and, amusingly enough, Best New Artist, a testament to just how unnoticed their first two albums went.

“Traffic and Weather” marks the first new release from the light-hearted popsters in four years, as their 2005 album “Out of State Plates” was a compilation of B-sides and previously-unreleased singles.

In those four years, their sound has evolved subtly while maintaining its fundamental principles of universally palatable melodies and endlessly listenable lyrics.

This latest record packs into 14 fresh songs more characters than a Shakespeare play and more momentum than a Barack Obama presidential campaign. Every personality in every song is skillfully fleshed out in the space of a few bars, whether from the first- or third-person perspective.

The line in “New Routine” about two men telling each other jokes “that they both know / that they both know” is remarkably apt and sure to strike chords with longtime friends everywhere.

Musically, the album is more in-your-face than the band’s previous efforts. Especially worthy of note is the title track. The song, which details long-suppressed passions between two Channel Six news reporters, is both clever (“We belong together / Like traffic and weather”) and infectious.

Lead guitar Jody Porter keeps things moving along with vigorous, sometimes restless guitar riffs right through to the album’s closer, a slightly twangy ditty about seemingly endless plane flights.

On the other hand, lovely, mellow ballads like “Fire in the Canyon” and “I-95” assure us that the group’s newfound, ramped-up energy doesn’t come at the expense of their gentler, more melodic side.

In fact, the opening guitar strumming of “I-95” positively channels the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” while the quiet and sweet “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim” is a perfect little theme for lovebirds on the go.

All in all, “Traffic and Weather” is more than a solid effort. Granted, its thematic ideas border on gimmicky at times, but the work as a whole manages to never cross the line between poignancy and schmaltz.

Perhaps the strongest criticism of this album is that its charmingly packaged and charmingly delivered songs lack any hidden depth.

There is little to be gained from repeated listenings, as most of the record’s meaning is offered up the very first time. Fortunately, each song is charming enough to reward return visits.