Saturday, May 31, 2014
Tuneful Alternative Power pop from the 90s
Rock critics love to gloat. It’s a critical part of their job, almost as significantly important as name-dropping and claiming to have the definitive opinion on every album ever recorded. Here’s how the story begins: In 1995, a rock critic friend picked the Minneapolis based, Alternative power pop rock band Semisonic as a "Band to Watch" for his year-end mag column. That was due to the band’s Pleasure EP. The band’s major-label debut, Great Divide, was later picked by Rolling Stone as one of the best albums of 1996, but for some reason he just never got interested in that second disc. Maybe he expected too much after hearing the band’s first EP.
The opener on Semisonic's second studio album Feeling Strangely Fine (1998), "Closing Time," was a phenomenal No.1 Grammy Nominated Modern Rock hit - getting heavy rotations of alt-rock radio stations, and making you feel like how it was right back in ’98. Sure, it’s vaguely reminiscent of the guitar line from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Bush’s "Little Things," for that matter, but the addition of the simple piano line is almost enough to make that riff sound new again.
Next up is "Singing in My Sleep," a song that could easily have been written by Cheap Trick during their heyday (that’s a compliment, by the way). It’s about a long-distance love affair that’s kept alive by the couple’s trading of mix tapes. Have fun trying to spot all the songs referenced in the lyrics. On "Made to Last," singer/songwriter/guitarist Dan Wilson delivers a cryptic message to the band’s fans. "Never You Mind" is a bit too bouncy to really work, much like a Ben Folds Five track with less interesting lyrics (and without the really talented pianist).
One of the many highlights on Feeling Strangely Fine is the beautifully intense "Secret Smile" and "DND," a surprisingly touching song about a motel room rendezvous. In case you’re wondering, the song’s title refers to the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door. "Completely Pleased" may be a first of its kind in rock and roll - a song in which a male singer actually sings "I want to leave you completely pleased." How many times have we heard a singer focus only on their own pleasure? Kudos to Wilson for turning an old cliché on its ear.
Semisonic worked closely to with English record producer Nick Launay (Arcade Fire, Nick Cave, Killing Joke) to strip their songs down to their essential elements. They succeeded, and recorded a disc that makes you think as much as it makes you want to sing along.
Admittedly, there are a few bloodless tracks here, and Semisonic’s sound is too clean and too easy on the ears to appeal to modern heavy rock fans entranced by the jagged edges of say Trent Reznor or Billy Corgan or Indie acts like Arcade Fire. But Feeling Strangely Fine has plenty of well-written lyrics hiding behind that nice wall of ear candy. Maybe my friend was right back in ’95 after all. Yeah, rock critics love to gloat.
Listen to the entire Feeling Strangely Fine (1998) album now on Grooveshark here or watch the Closing Time Video below!