Feeling Strangely Fine
MCA Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/26/1998
Forty years into this thing called rock'n'roll, is there an original sound left? It's a fair question when you hear an abundantly talented but indisputably familiar-sounding band like Semisonic.
On Feeling Strangely Fine, their second album, this versatile trio offers up hooks aplenty amid subtly complex arrangements. The grabber is right up front where their A&R guy obviously wanted it -- the thunderously catchy end-of-the-night, pair-'em-up-and-head-'em-out anthem "Closing Time." Interspersing a gently urgent piano melody with crunching power chords, the track effectively showcases the band's skill at creating music that sounds much bigger than you'd expect from a trio. Dan Wilson is on lead vocals and guitars, John Munson on bass and vocals, and Jacob Slichter on drums and vocals, but here and elsewhere everyone contributes keyboards, extra guitars and string arrangements to fatten the band's sound.
It's a method trios like Rush have used to their advantage, but it does present some problems trying to pull off live versions of these tunes. Thing is, despite the late night, smoky club graphics and lyrics on this album, Semisonic has the aura of a great studio band that may not translate as well live. They simply pack too many sonic tricks and extras into songs like "Never You Mind," with its distorted, slowed-down bridge and "Singing in My Sleep," with its manipulated, effects-laden intro and fadeout.
Still, the studio sound is a very strong, if familiar one. Drawing from a variety of classic rock influences, Semisonic incorporates some Hall & Oates-ish blue-eyed soul ("Secret Smile"); baroque Queen vocal arrangements and guitar tones (the bridge and quickie solos dotting "Never You Mind"); and a U2 homage that's so complete you think you're hearing a lost track from the Achtung Baby sessions ("Made To Last"). Beatlesque harmonies abound.
Which isn't to say Semisonic has no identity of its own. Lyrically, this album is a thoughtful and sometimes refreshingly earthy look at relationships. The lounge-y, orgasmic romp "Completely Pleased" is bound to make you smile, as is the intentionally pathetic pop rant "This Will Be My Year." The acoustic tunes are where lead voice Dan Wilson gets down to business and shows real promise, though. The all at once raw, sweet and seductive "DND," and the smartly written, arranged and sung "California" and "Gone To The Movies" reveal a sinuous, expressive songwriter emerging before your ears.
And if "California" also shapes up suspiciously like a lost U2 track, oh hell, what're you gonna do? A band could surely choose worse sounds to shoot for. For a group sometimes awash in influences, Semisonic does a terrific job of making it all sound fresh and worthwhile. Feeling Strangely Fine is sounding suspiciously like one of my favorite albums of 1998.