By Meghan Dunlap

The guys who turned lusting after a schoolmate's mom into an art form are back, after a long retreat to the recording studio. "Stacy's Mom" creators Fountains of Wayne have returned with the result of their seclusion, the new album Traffic and Weather.

The band, which made its debut back in the mid-'90s, is no stranger to obscurity; despite favorable reviews after two albums and tours with the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins and the Lemonheads, Fountains of Wayne had yet to garner a hit single, or much commercial success of any kind, at the close of the decade. As a result, the band parted ways in 1999, and over the next couple years, each got the chance to use his talents in other sectors of the music industry.

In 2001, the foursome, made up of Chris Collingwood (lead vocals, guitar), Adam Schlesinger (bass, backup vocals), Jody Porter (guitar, backup vocals) and Brian Young (drums) began to reassemble. Each member drew on new experiences accrued during the hiatus, helping Fountains of Wayne to grow as a band and slowly work their way back onto the music scene. By penning tunes for the cartoon "Hey Joel," the band earned enough income to begin recording once again. The product of these sessions became the 2003 smash success Welcome Interstate Managers, which delivered the hit single "Stacy's Mom" to the eager masses. With two Grammy nominations in tow, the quartet found themselves in the spotlight they had been trying to attain since the beginning, although longtime fans puzzled over the "Best New Artist" nomination.

Now, despite a 2005 release of B-sides and bonus tracks, the Fountains of Wayne have once again been off the radar for a while. When the news finally came out that they were recording another album, both the press and their fans were abuzz with anticipation. Blender Magazine even named them one of the reasons to love 2007 in light of the album's release this spring.

Songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood are known for their ability to tell stories through their music. In 1999, Schlesinger earned a Grammy nomination for "That Thing You Do," the irresistibly catchy tune from the Tom Hanks film of the same name. Each of the new songs on Traffic and Weather is like a vignette in a giant musical anthology, and the titles of the tracks read like teasers designed to make you want to hear the stories contained within. It's not false advertising, given these guys' gifts for narration and great character development.

Many of the songs center on compelling characters that drive a miniature storyline in often unexpected ways. With "This Better Be Good," listeners are introduced to a paranoid boyfriend, while with "Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim" (not a very creative title, but at least it's descriptive), we follow the title characters as they wearily weave their way through the airport. Although she's no one's mom, "Yoland Hayes" is another object of desire as a seductive DMV employee. But the song has an introspective side as well, posing the questions: Who is this person who sits there all day? Who does she go home to?

The emotions that accompany these characters' storylines are poignantly emphasized by the great arrangements the band has put together. Although they're often classified as "Alternative Rock," these musicians are endowed with an uncanny knack to perform a variety of styles without sounding phony or cliché, and they use this to their advantage. Listeners will experience everything from jangly '60s pop to classic rock, and everything in between. A pleasant surprise is the folksy "Fire in the Canyon," which provides just the right amount of twang to suit its open-road symbolism.

Fountains of Wayne's ability to ignore whatever the current fad in music is and make enjoyable music for their audience is what has helped them to transcend their past difficulties. They never compromised their integrity to get ahead, and when they finally did, the feeling of success was genuine and much-deserved.

The new album's vocal melodies and harmonies, accompanied by excellent instrumental compositions, provide perfect dialogue and backdrop to their whimsical creations. In fact, one might say they go together just like Traffic and Weather.

After the long wait, listeners will not be disappointed with Fountain of Wayne's newest. Hopefully it will not be another four years before they get back to the studio, but until then, they will be busy touring and promoting their album — and, of course, playing the obligatory "Stacy's Mom."

Grade: 4 out of 5