Album Review: Jody Porter and the Berlin Waltz – Waterways

Fountains of Wayne made some of the best melodic pop/rock of their time. The group was active from the mid 1990s through about 2013. They had gone inactive in 2011, and the 2020 death of Adam Schlesinger ruled out any further group activity.

All along, FoW had effectively been a vehicle for the songwriting talents of Schlesinger and Chirs Collingwood. While the band’s lineup remained unchanged from 1997 onward, drummer Brian Young and guitarist Jody Porter never placed any of their songs on the group’s releases. Heck, you were ore likely to get a song on a Fountains of Wayne album if your name was Burt Bacharach, Jeff Lynne or Justin Hayward.)

But as his 2010 solo debut Close to the Sun made plain, Porter is a talented songwriter and vocalist (we already knew about his fine guitar work). And while his second solo album, 2013’s Month of Mondays and 2017’s Pacifier both somehow slipped by without my notice, I’m pleased to hear Waterways, his fourth release.

Porter’s melodic instincts are the equal of his better-known former band mates. His rocking quotient, though, is a few notches higher. “Girl from the Other Side” is a rifftastic tune, with a signature lick that will drill its way into the listener’s head, remaining there. “Half Mast” combines hookiness and shoegaze texture, two qualities that don’t coexist nearly often enough.

The soaring, scintillating guitar lines on “Moonbeam Reach” make the most of creative sustain. The chiming “Argonaut” is the track on which Porter sounds the most like his old band. The pure pop (yet always rocking) character that he brought to late-period Monkees projects is in full flower here; his Rickenbacker tones and subtle handclaps adorn a breezy tune. If there’s any criticism of the tune – -and it’s a mild one – it’s that Porter’s vocals are bit buried in the mix.

The gauzy, loping “Crashland” will draw the listener deep into Porter’s musical world. His subtle use of keyboard textures is so understated that it’s easy to miss; throughout the album he demonstrates a keen sense of arrangement aesthetics.

While his approach to vocals doesn’t vary widely throughout Waterways, Porter’s guitar tone and arrangement choices are quite wide-screen. The glammy “Sheet Lightning” makes the most of snaky guitar lines and Brian Young’s splashy drum work.

Druign the Fountains of Wayne years, Schlesinger and Collingwood were often singled out for their clever wordplay;, their intelligent use of language. Whether Porter started out with similar skills or picked up some inspiration from them is less important than the fact that he demonstrates similar expertise in that area. From its title on down, “Neverlasting Love” is a prime example of that. “Syncing Ships” is a pretty clever title, too, and its eerie keyboards – coupled with the “Tomorrow Never Knows” style drumming – rank among the most compelling moments on the album.

Porter’s facility on multiple instruments means that he likely could have created Waterways completely on his own. And while he does much of the heavy lifting on this new set – all the guitars and keyboards, most of the bass, co-production), he’s joined by some serious players. Former band mate Young (who produced the album with Porter) plays drums on most of the tracks, and bassist-vocalist Ian Harrod (with whom I’ve had the occasional pleasure to play) helps out a bit.

The albums ends with the brief but tasty “Waterways (Pt 2).” The tune fades early, and after a suitable period of silence, a hidden bonus track appears (hey, I remember the ‘90s, too). Layers upon layers of squalling guitars inhabit a rocked-up, swirlingly psychedelic and essentially instrumental number that would likely be a highlight of a Jody Porter live set. That’s something I’d like to witness. In the meantime, Waterways is the next best thing.