Makeout Music For The Millennium
SEMISONIC IS IN the midst of a jubilant homecoming set before a packed house at the Fine Line Music Cafe in when singer/guitarist Dan Wilson--who has charmed the crowd all night with one-liners and good-natured banter--suddenly turns serious.
"I don't know if this is appropriate," he begins. "But I'm really sick and tired of all this glorification of the Unabomber. It's like he's some kind of hero now, because Oh, he only killed a few people, and it was on a matter of principle. I mean, people should just realize it's fucking wrong and fucking get over it."
Scattered hoots and cheers. Wilson steals a side glance at his bandmates; bassist John Munson and drummer/keyboardist Jake Schlicter, who's buried behind racks of gear. "I also don't get all this pop culture celebration of self-destructiveness... You know, the idea that it's romantic or something to be Kurt Cobain lying in a shed with his head blown open." Wilson pauses amid applause. "Anyone who's been suicidal knows it's not romantic."
At which point the band tears into "Down in Flames," the first single from Great Divide, Semisonic's lusty major-label debut. It's dark, especially for a single--Wilson wrote it about the suicide of a friend--but onstage it comes off as a powerful tribute, a celebration of life, in contrast to the irony fetish and self-pity syndrome of much current pop. It perfectly embodies the contrasts that make up Great Divide: The trio volleys rootsy grooves one moment, lashes out feedback and electronic FX the next. The songs have big stadium rock & roll endings, and the guys play with fierce male-bonding reverie, yet--and this is the amazing part--they pull it off with utter refusal to be macho rawkers. A new age Minneapolis power pop has arrived.
Dan Wilson's love affair with music has been consuming and unpredictable--and one he tried to avoid for years. After picking up an art degree at Harvard in '83, the St. Louis Park High alum moved to San Francisco with the ambition of being a painter. But music kept compulsively creeping into his life, until he got the call to join Trip Shakespeare, the arty pop band that would achieve regional cult status in the late '80s. Brother Matt's secondary guitar parts on Trip's first LP, Applehead Man, recorded before Dan joined, were the first parts Dan ever learned.
In 1992, as the future of Trip Shakespeare was in question, Dan Wilson, Munson, and longtime friend Jake Schlicter--a multitalented computer programmer with a soft spot for R&B and funk--casually birthed a new band, Pleasure, with a home recording called "If I Run." The new band sprang from Schlicter's basement studio as a freeform, funky alternative to what had become stylistic rigidity in Trip Shakespeare, and Wilson's first forum as a full-time songwriter. But after a couple of years of fun, Pleasure was dropped by its original label, Elektra, and hit a brick wall. The ensuing distress, ironically, was what compelled the band to head in the bold new direction on Great Divide.
A third of the album was completed, but left in financial limbo for need of a new label to buy it out. Frustrated, Wilson made a proposal to the band to begin a new alter ego, a "superexperimental and sonically weird" studio project to be called Semisonic. Wilson coined a manifesto for the new project: "Make-Out Music for the Millenium."
"We got a sampler and started screwing around with it and experimenting a lot because we were going through this agonizing period of not being able to work on our record," says Munson, a towering man with a rep as one of the nicest guys in the local biz. "We were sitting at home wanting to do stuff, trying to feel good about anything and finding it pretty damn hard to feel good about anything at all."
Spirits were lifted by Semisonic's maiden composition, the delicate, woozy "No One Else," which shows Wilson using a whole new template to express his passions. ("You're the movie star/Of my inner space," he whispers to the song's love object.) At first, the trio intended to carry on the Pleasure and Semisonic personalities as separate entities. But by the time they lost the name Pleasure under legal duress, the two ideals merged under one Semisonic. MCA finally rescued Great Divide from Elektra, and reunited the band with faithful producer Paul Fox (Sugarcubes, Tina and the B-Side Movement) to finish the record.
The result is an album that's both nostalgic and visionary in sound and outlook. "Temptation" hearkens to Motown balladry, and "Falling" contains a vocal reference to mid-period Beach Boys (the other Wilson brothers).Yet impish bursts of feedback punctuate party songs like "F.N.T." and "Delicious," while epic sampled noise envelopes "The Prize," a song about a pop culture worshipping false idols. Great Divide would also seem to be a record with a natural mass appeal, and based on the current MTV and radio activity of "Down in Flames," MCA may have a hit on its hands. An even greater hit might be found in "If I Run," a soaring escape anthem in which Wilson proclaims "Keep waitin' 'til the day I die when I'll lose my heavy load/But I wouldn't want to leave you behind," before the tune erupts in an incendiary jam.
That inevitable discovery of the bright side of dark art is a theme for Wilson. "The fact is I'm a really, really moody, sometimes depressive person. But I'm not suicidal, that's just not me," he says. "I can guarantee you, when you're slammin' with the band and all the people are singing along, it's not a self-pitying experience. It's totally the transcendent joy of creation. It's not a very fashionable thing to acknowledge, but that's what it is.
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