One Night At First Avenue


Independent release, 2003

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Once upon a time there was a little band from Minneapolis that could… and did.

The career of Semisonic -- a trio of multi-instrumentalists with a gift for clever, melodic modern rock -- to date forms a perfect parabola. From the cool, comfy confines of the upper Midwest they progressed from a self-produced EP (1995's Pleasure) to a moderately successful major-label full-length (1996's Great Divide), to a full-fledged hit album (1998's Feeling Strangely Fine, featuring the massive international hit "Closing Time"), to a subpar follow-up album (2001's All About Chemistry), to fading media interest, to getting dropped by MCA.

Their most recent disc, the self-published live compilation One Night At First Avenue is, in its own way, the mirror-image of the Pleasure EP. With their fifteen minutes of fame apparently past, the band that appeared to the East and West Coasts to have risen from nowhere, went home. First Avenue is one of the Minneapolis clubs Semisonic used to play before MTV started spinning their videos, before they got nominated for a Grammy, before their worlds were turned inside out by the fame machine.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

One Night offers a tidy encapsulation of the Semisonic's recording career, including songs from their initial EP (the local favorite "Sculpture Garden") all the way through to the one soundtrack placement ("Over My Head") they scored after All About Chemistry.

Semisonic's self-invented genre might be termed love songs for geek-rockers. They revel in taking words like "fascinating" and "delightful," welding them to fat rock riffs that stick in your brain like an AC/DC chorus, and then layering on keys and strings and loops for depth and texture. The challenge then becomes, how do three guys with just two hands and two feet apiece translate those full, textured studio creations into compelling live renditions?

I'm still not sure how they pull it off, having never caught them live, but all three guys -- lead vocalist/guitarist Dan Wilson, bassist John Munson and drummer Jacob Slichter -- are credited with playing both their main instruments and keyboards on this disc. One clue: I've read that Slichter's road kit includes a set-up that allows him to trigger samples with his feet, a nice little trick.

That said, there's also some interest in observing how these songs strip down a bit in a live setting. The now guitar-less "Never You Mind" (Wilson plays piano instead) relies here on Munson's amped-up, rumbly bass line and Slichter's loping yet complex time-keeping. The way they execute the bridge is especially nifty; the studio version featured dreamy, slowed-down tape effects, which they duplicate live using only their own ability to change tempo on a dime while simultaneously singing dreamy three-part background harmonies.

Wilson, whose airy voice contrasts nicely with his heavy, often reverbed guitar style, solos passionately and tastefully on the band's ill-fated (and aptly-named) first single "Down In Flames." Absent the layered sound of their studio work, the songs do suffer in places, and Wilson occasionally struggles to hit notes with his vocals. Fortunately, the teasing wit and brilliant rock hooks of numbers like "Secret Smile," "F.N.T." and "Delicious" ensures these minor blemishes are quickly forgiven.

One Night At First Avenue captures Semisonic in their second-most natural environment (after a well-equipped studio), and serves as a worthwhile document of a too-brief career that one hopes may yet re-ignite.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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