Pleasure E.P.

Semisonic

CherryDisc/MCA, 1995

http://www.semisonic.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/13/2021

Semisonic began as an early-90s side project for Trip Shakespeare guitarist-vocalist Dan Wilson and bassist-vocalist John Munson, joined by Wilson’s college friend Jacob Slichter, a drummer whose tastes ran more to classic soul and funk than Trip’s expansive “dark psychedelia.” However you might imagine those elements adding up, the resulting music, first captured in a 1993 demo, was firmly in the alt-rock realm, with Wilson’s muscular, distorted guitars and keening voice featuring over a groove-happy rhythm section. 

Initially taking the band name Pleasure—a reflection of both the group’s purpose and its ethos—following Trip Shakespeare’s demise the new trio became Wilson and Munson’s primary focus, resulting in this 1995 self-produced, independently-released debut EP. While the name Pleasure suited the band’s playful and sensual vibe, they later learned that the name was already trademarked by another group. Thus was born Semisonic, the moniker under which this until-then obscure EP was subsequently re-released by MCA after the band’s big single “Closing Time” hit in 1998.

Fellow ’90s phenoms Ben Folds Five titled their mid-career open-the-vaults collection Naked Baby Photos, and that title does come to mind when comparing these early Semisonic efforts with the tighter, more painstakingly crafted tunes the band would become known for. A certain gawkiness shows up at times, though it’s largely obscured by the fire and enthusiasm the trio pours into these songs. From the start, Semisonic had a distinctly punchy and warm sound, not to mention a mostly sunny attitude that stood in stark contrast to the dark-and-angsty grunge era from which the group emerged.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The seven early tracks captured here contain all the elements that would earn the group interest from multiple labels, nowhere moreso than on ragged-glory opener “The Prize,” all loose, thrashy drums and dreamy, flanged-out guitars, as Wilson essays a cerebral lyric offering a rather Zen take on striving (“Tell me what kind of prize can you get / Where you don't want to win it?”). Second cut “Brand New Baby” takes a bouncier direction, offering tart commentary on an ex’s efforts to move on. (Both tunes would be re-recorded for the group’s subsequent debut LP The Great Divide.)

Up next, “In The Veins” rides an arcing, incendiary riff that feels like Seattle by way of Hendrix, supporting a rather surrealist lyric delving into “the liquid world” before Wilson erupts in a skronky, fire-spitting solo. The one song here over four minutes, “Wishing Well” takes its time building up a pleasantly heavy head of steam, with a cornucopia of sonic quirks and squiggles folded into its dense middle section.

“Star” features Munson on lead vocals, a ballad that feels like a good fit for his gentler, breathier voice. There’s a genuine affection and warmth to the track that feels like a reflection of the creators behind it, who remain good friends almost 30 years later. If there’s a missed opportunity to be found on this EP it may reside in “Sculpture Garden,” a frothy, propulsive number with an almost Gin Blossoms feel to its fuel-injected guitars and singalong chorus. It’s a song about the joy of making art, a distinctively Semisonic concoction that manages to be cerebral and sensual all at once.

The EP closes with “The Gift,” a brief and rather somber acoustic ballad, before lapsing into a series of snippets of random noise, in-studio chatter and mixing-board playfulness, the sort of deadpan humor and sonic experimentation that would infiltrate each of the band’s subsequent recordings.

The Pleasure EP shows a relatively raw and hungry band flexing its creative muscles with a set of occasionally patchy yet undeniably energetic songs, full of a promise of things to come. It’s well worth picking up for any fan, or anyone curious to hear the sound of a band taking a strikingly different approach from contemporaries like Nirvana and Soundgarden.

Rating: B

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