It would be a mistake to refer to Sky Full of Holes as Fountains of Wayne’s “serious” album, though it’s far and away the band’s mellowest and most deliberately midtempo record to date. The juvenile wordplays, ironic pop-culture references, and narratives about sad-sack folks undone by mundane, everyday minutia that are among the band’s trademarks remain fully intact: The content of the songs on Sky Full of Holes is, by and large, as wry and idiosyncratic as their songs have ever been. It’s the lack of punch in the arrangements of those songs, particularly in the latter half of the album, that is the most noticeable change in the band’s style, and it isn’t necessarily a good one.
That isn’t to say that Fountains of Wayne can’t pull off a more subdued style: Utopia Parkway‘s “Hat and Feet” and Welcome Interstate Managers‘s “Hey Julie” and “Valley Winter Song” were highlights on their respective records. Here, the gentle country-inflected shuffle of “Road Song” is perfectly matched to the song’s vagabond story arc, and album closer “Cemetery Guns” is a genuinely moving, pensive take on a military funeral. The problem with Sky Full of Holes is that it lacks balance, and it doesn’t always showcase the unrivaled brand of power-pop that has made Fountains of Wayne such a fine, distinctive pop band.
Even the uptempo cuts on the album emphasize acoustic over electric guitars, which leaves the arrangements on “The Summer Place” and “Radio Bar” lacking the massive, forceful sound that might otherwise maximize the impact of their unimpeachable melodies and expert use of pop conventions. They’re power-pop songs that have been neutered. Songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood still have better instincts for writing catchy, sing-along melodies than just about anyone, and there’s no faulting the construction of “Radio Bar” or “A Dip in the Ocean.” But without the occasional jolt of “power” in their power-pop, Sky Full of Holes becomes a little monotonous.
The album’s sequencing makes it hard to discern the individual selling points of “Cold Comfort Flowers,” “Firelight Waltz,” “Workingman’s Hands,” or any one of the songs on the latter half of the album, which blur together into one lengthy run that, while lovely and melodic, never really commands attention. When compared to a standout like “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” which would have been a far better choice for a lead single than the odd failed-businessmen tale “Richie and Ruben,” the back half of Sky Full of Holes is simply a letdown, despite being a marked improvement over the songs on the band’s last effort, the middling Traffic & Weather.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of aesthetic choices that just don’t play to Fountains of Wayne’s considerable strengths. They’ve always shown a real empathy for the subjects of their songs, but that doesn’t mean the band should adopt the more reserved, serious tone of most singer-songwriters. The overreliance on that style on “Hate to See You Like This” and “A Dip in the Ocean” makes Sky Full of Holes sound more ponderous than it should, and the frontloading of the album with its uptempo cuts makes it entirely too top-heavy. There’s still some exquisite, smartassed pop here, but it’s not a full-on return to form for the band.