40 Years in 50 Minutes
All About Chemistry is Semisonic's Homage to Pop

Ladies and gentlemen…

Announcing the grand opening of the big ol’ website that houses this here column. It’s up and running (which doesn’t necessarily mean up to date) at www.tm3am.com. The site will get updated very soon, but for now everything from February 14 backward is online. Check it out, and then e-mail Mike Ferrier and tell him what a great job he did. His address is at the bottom of the “New Readers” page.

This doesn’t mean I won’t continue to e-mail the column to all of you. Once a week, this beast should show up in your e-mailbox, unless I suddenly die or something. So fear not.

Anywho, last week, if you remember, I mentioned that I wanted to take some time and collect my thoughts on Semisonic’s All About Chemistry. Well, I’m glad I waited a week. Buckle up…

One of 1998’s biggest surprises was the quality of Semisonic’s second album, Feeling Strangely Fine. This trio rose from the ashes of rightly-ignored pop group Trip Shakespeare in 1996 to release Great Divide, a trite mess of an album that bombed like Nagasaki. The strange thing about Great Divide was that it was obvious how much the record company was behind this group. The album was a production, with big guitars and a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar sound. It spawned a semi-hit (“Delicious”) and died on the vine.

A second album seemed iffy, but somehow Semisonic put one together. The strange thing about Feeling Strangely Fine was that it was also obvious how little the record company was behind them. This little record was made for, like, a hundred bucks, and it often sounds that way. Miraculously, though, the lack of production brought out the honesty in Dan Wilson’s songs. Feeling Strangely Fine was a modern pop album that played like a confessional folk album, with resonant songs that won you over in spite of themselves. Oddly, it spawned two huge hits, “Closing Time” and “Singing in My Sleep,” and sold like naked pictures of Jeri Ryan at a Star Trek convention.

There seemed to be a pattern forming, and a disturbing one at that. When Semisonic has no money, they make great records. When they have a big budget, they overindulge and make poo-poo. Does the third album bear this out?

Sort of.

It’s important to note that All About Chemistry is the biggest-sounding album these guys have ever made, both as Semisonic and as Trip Shakespeare. This thing is huge, layered, and sonically massive. I was all set to pan the hell out of it last week, but a few more listens tipped me off to what they were doing. I think All About Chemistry is Semisonic’s attempt at a tribute album to the last 40 years of pop music.

And believe me, brother, this thing is pure pop. I haven’t heard an album this purely pop in many a moon. It reminds me, in its multiple-personality way, of nothing so much as a latter-period Queen album. The Works springs immediately to mind, as does The Game. Wilson, John Munson and Jacob Slichter have too much love for all forms of pop to confine themselves to one style, or even a couple of styles. Every song is utterly different from every other song. Oh, and none of the songs sound anything like Feeling Strangely Fine.

Queen made a career out of albums that sound like mix tapes, so there is a decent precedent. For Semisonic, this feels like expensive career suicide. What saves the album is the group’s obvious joy at producing this stuff. My first couple of stabs at a review tried to sum it all up, to take it all in as a whole. Can’t be done. I’ve decided the only way I can accurately describe All About Chemistry is one song at a time. Besides, the band put so much work into each tune here that they all deserve their own review anyway. Here goes:

Track one – “Chemistry.”

I’ve had the longest amount of time to deal with this one. I first downloaded it from Napster more than a month ago. It’s been described by others as a great lost Hall & Oates single, but I think it’s better than that. To me, this tune sounds like Todd Rundgren at his cheeky best. The rhythm is carried by lovely repeating piano chords, the guitar has a nifty melody that rests atop them, and the lyrics tread that fine line between stupid and clever that Nigel Tufnel was talking about. It even contains a great “Oh-oh-oh-o-o-ooh” lead-out from the chorus. This is a quintessential pop song, but then, there’s a lot of those on here.

Track two – “Bed.”

Now, this one sounds like Hall & Oates, but only if they were complete assholes. Wilson gets in touch with his inner bastard in this paean to physical relationships. “If you think I’m asking too much, we can stay in touch and I’ll find someone else to bed.” That’s right, it’s “bed” in its rarely-used verb form. Musically, it’s pure ‘80s blue-eyed soul. This may as well be the backing track to “Maneater.”

Track three – “Act Naturally.”

From Hall & Oates to Chris DeBurgh. “Act Naturally” is a synth ballad that sounds an awful lot like DeBurgh’s “The Lady in Red,” or, for that matter, any one of a number of Phil Collins songs that also sound like “The Lady in Red.” There are no guitars in this song, the drums are minimalist and programmed, and the synth washes are the instrumentation. That’s not to say this doesn’t work. As a keyboard-driven pop ballad, it’s great. Wilson’s lyrics here start to show signs of the same multiple personality disorder that affects the album. Coming right off the harsh “Bed,” “Act Naturally” is a plea for his lover to keep their troubled relationship hidden from the public. “’Till we get it figured out, don’t give them anything that they can doubt…” It’s hard to feel sorry for him after his turn as an ass in the last song.

Track four – “She’s Got My Number.”

The pop epic. All the trappings are here, from the cascading pianos to the lovely minor chords to the huge orchestrated finale. Like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” it manages to be gigantic in scope and yet under six minutes in length. This is one of my favorites.

Track five – “Follow.”

If you have an aversion to pop cliches, I’d get out now. Dig the chorus lyrics: “Take me wherever you go, make me forget tomorrow, love me the best that you know, all of the rest will follow.” In the wrong hands, that smells like week-old limburger. It’s a good thing, then, that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Wilson sets this sentimental claptrap against a breezy, James Taylor-in-a-good-mood guitar line that’s no less cliched, but together the lyrics and music seem to click. This is another quintessential pop song, the kind the Gin Blossoms tried to write 20-some-odd times.

Track six – “Sunshine and Chocolate.”

I hope Jeff Lynne hears this, and I hope he’s amused enough not to sue. “Sunshine and Chocolate” may as well be one of the hundreds of songs Lynne has produced, both with Electric Light Orchestra and otherwise. They even got the chirpy lead guitar sound down perfectly. The song isn’t too bad either.

Track seven – “Who’s Stopping You.”

Another mean-sounding one, but when you’re trying to sound like Steely Dan, mean comes with the territory. Adding to the disassociated feel is John Munson’s one turn at lead vocals. (He does one an album, usually.) This one has hints of the Beatles in it as well, but the lyrics (about a man kicking his dependent lover out) are pure Becker and Fagen.

Track eight – “I Wish.”

This monster is the group’s homage to garage-pop. It’s bare compared to the rest of the album – just guitars, bass, drums and vocals – and it sounds an awful lot like Aimee Mann’s “Par for the Course.” This tune is also Wilson’s opportunity to trot out the most durable of pop cliches, the “highest-mountain-deepest-sea” lyric. No kidding, it goes like this: “I’d swim the high seas for you, get down on my knees for you, swing from the trees for you…” They pull out of this tailspin by appending a three-minute searing guitar solo to the ending, which is really worth it.

Track nine – “One True Love.”

Get this. “One True Love” is not only a perfect sad-sack lonely-in-love ballad, it’s also a collaboration with Carole King, who co-wrote, sings and plays piano. Carole King! She’s almost a pop cliche by herself, but the tune is sweet, and her voice fits right in. Where has she been?

Track ten – “Get a Grip.”

Ah, the pop novelty song. This is, of course, a long-standing tradition dating back before the Chipmunks, and one that survives to this day. (See Eiffel 65’s “Blue,” or the A*Teens’ cover of “Dancing Queen.”) “Get a Grip” is, of course, about masturbation: “Get a grip on yourself, you know you should/Get a grip on yourself, it sure feels good.” It’s set to a bouncy pop-punk backbeat, and it’s three minutes of fluffy fun. Its message, as well, cannot be overstated…

Track eleven – “Surprise.”

The album’s one tip of the hat to modern pop-rock, a la Everclear (especially volume one of Songs from an American Movie). They turn the genre on its ear, though, by infusing “Surprise” with winningly optimistic lyrics: “I’m gonna surprise them all when they look and I’m gone, gone, gone…” This is the one tune here that might be a hit.

Track twelve – “El Matador.”

Elton John has always ended his albums with a simple, big-sounding epic that serves as a curtain call. (He even called one of them “Curtains,” from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.) “El Matador” is one of those, an absurdly simple pop song that builds in orchestration and intensity until its crescendo of a conclusion. It’s a plaintive plea for someone to “stay a while,” which makes for a fitting last song. It’s all piano, acoustic guitar and orchestra.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time on this effervescent little creation, but then, the band spent an awful lot more time on it than I did. All About Chemistry is surprisingly ambitious for an album that’s as disposable as a paper towel, and for all its hugeness, it fails to connect in even the simplest ways. Semisonic’s traded emotional resonance for sonic resonance, and even though I like them both in different ways, I’d have to recommend Feeling Strangely Fine over this one. There’s something so direct about that album that gets lost here in layers of sound.

Still, All About Chemistry isn’t bad for what it is. If you were a Queen fan, you might even find it suits you perfectly. Me, I’m sort of looking forward to it falling off the sales charts, so that Semisonic can go back to miniscule budgets, smaller concepts and the simple, perfect music they did so well last time out.

Next week, depending on how I feel, either Sepultura or Shawn Colvin. Also on the horizon is Celtic prog band Iona’s new Open Sky. I might listen to all three in a row. It’s neat being me.

See you in line Tuesday morning.