All About Chemistry


MCA Records, 2001

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I would make a lousy sportscaster. Not for lack of enthusiasm or knowledge; no, my downfall would be perspective. I'm what they call a "homer." I always root for my team, even when they are the process of making a gigantic sucking sound. (This is surely one of the severest after-effects of growing up cheering for the San Francisco Giants between 1972 and 1986.)

These thoughts come to mind when approaching the troublesome third album from Minnesota trio Semisonic. Their second album, 1998's Feeling Strangely Fine, was one of that year's musical highlights in my book. Filled with clever hooks, intriguing sonic quirks and witty come-ons, the band proclaimed it "make-out music for the millennium," and I wasn't about to argue. The huge single "Closing Time" was just the tip of the iceberg for this terrific album.

All of which set up high hopes for All About Chemistry as I waited… and waited… and waited. Three years in the making, this album nonetheless arrives feeling sadly underdeveloped. Ditching Aussie producer Nick Launay, the band elected to self-produce. No doubt the label wasn't thrilled - think about the history of young bands with self-produced hit albums; didn't take long, did it? - and for once, I'm inclined to think the label was right.

The first big change on this album is that most of these 12 new songs are piano-based. It seems Semisonic's chief songwriter Dan Wilson bought an electric piano after the success of Feeling Strangely Fine and just couldn't tear himself away from it. The end result is a couple of very pretty ballads and a whole lot of songs lacking sonic punch.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The kickoff title cut appears to be intended as the band's stab at another "Closing Time," reaching for a memorable hook and wringing as much juice out of it as possible. And it's a good one; the problem - as with a number of songs on this album - is that the lyrics just don't cut it. Where Feeling Strangely Fine brims with clever phrases and keen insights, All About Chemistry suffers from a bad case of cliched writing and songs that just don't work. "Chemistry" pretty much implodes on the weakness of the entirely predictable, and at times even cringe-worthy, lyric. Is this the same writer who composed "California" and "Singing In My Sleep"?

Compounding the pain, the band follows up with the even worse "Bed," a truly embarrassing cut. I've read that it was meant as satire, making fun of a guy whose carnal impulses get the better of his judgment, but y'know, the Farrelly brothers used the same kind of excuses to justify Shallow Hal, and guess what? Fat people aren't laughing. This song makes me want to shower every time I hear it.

The crime of this album is that "Bed" segues right into "Act Naturally," which may actually be the best track this band has ever recorded. A gorgeous, aching plea from one side to the other of a fractured relationship, it's anchored by the most evocative piano playing of Wilson's career and soaring harmonies. Heart-tuggingly beautiful, it couldn't be more different from the track that precedes it.

The highlights of the rest of the album can be summed up quickly: the buzzing guitar on "Sunshine & Chocolate"; the extended outro on "I Wish," featuring a nice solo from head Jayhawk Gary Louris; the shimmering, poignant Wilson-Carole King duet "One True Love"; and the album-closer, drummer Jacob Slichter's very pretty "El Matador." The only other cut that's memorable in any way would be "Get a Grip," in which Wilson, uh, reaches for a complement to Feeling Strangely Fine's grooving, orgasmic "Completely Pleased" and ends up with a grotesquely giddy ode to self-love. It might have made a decent gag outtake - song #5 on a CD single - but arriving on the same album as "Act Naturally" and "One True Love," it sits there like a dog turd.

In addition to an uneven set of songs, this album also suffers from over-production. Where Feeling Strangely Fine took great songs and added sonic flourishes, All About Chemistry takes underdeveloped songs and dresses them up with all manner of sonic doodads, noodling little distractions that not only don't add substance, but in many cases actually serve to emphasize the songs' basic short-comings.

And yet, like a true homer, I'm still in this band's corner. They've shown in the past that they're capable of greatness, and this album doesn't suggest they'll never attain it again, only that they maybe had a lesson or two to learn first. With a sympathetic producer freeing them up to spend more time on the songs, Semisonic's next album could still be something to look forward to.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2001 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.