Semisonic Feeling Strangely Fine

Feeling Strangely Fine

QUIET NOW. A lone male, almost kissing the mic, sings a single note in a breathy half voice. You can't help but want to get close. Padded by delicate plucks on a guitar, the notes take shape and ascend methodically, spiraling around the verse once, twice, gathering momentum, and emerging two steps higher. Suddenly, thick electric guitars kick in; the singer climbs higher still, finally cracking through the sonic ceiling and landing way up on the roof, in a full-on, abandoned falsetto, shouting out across the great divide: "I feel!" "I love!" "I'm sexy!"

Virtually every Semisonic song has its pretty little cherry popped the same way. Or that's how it seems. Their 1996 full-length debut, Great Divide, was blessed with haunted bridges whose inventiveness saved a slew of otherwise forgettable tunes. Perhaps because that album was so long in the making (and distilled through plenty of live tryouts), this one feels like an aftershock by contrast: a competent, pretty album that doesn't keep its promises. It sounds like Semisonic, all right: Traditional pop songs are dolled up by a storehouse of effects pedals, decorative aural doodads, and tasteful references (including ELO, "Rain Song"-era Zep, and, on "Secret Smile," bald mimicry of U2's "One").

Still, most tracks don't quite reach their destination. Lead guy Dan Wilson's songwriting formula has lost the punch evinced on Great Divide, and the lyrics often feel predictable and/or awkward (e.g., "Closing time/Time for you to go back to the places you will be from"). While several songs are damn catchy ("Closing Time," "All Worked Out"), they retain a processed quality, a certain distance; they can't prick the heart.

The best track, "California," is an unabashedly mournful account of recording: "I tore my heart out from my chest/Mixed it up in my mind with the best, freshest pieces of my soul/I chose the ones I loved the most/Drove 'em all down to the coast/Threw 'em in a big black hole." I wonder if these lines reveal something about what's lacking from most of this album: a willingness to explode, to be too beautiful, to be naked, to risk going down in flames.

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