August 28, 1996
Semisonic, Great Divide (MCA 1996) -- The rock trio of Semisonic continue the Los Angeles tradition of sharp studio work and solid arrangements. With their smooth vocals and strong rock backgrounds, Semisonic is the best power pop since the late School of Fish.
Semisonic sprang from the ashes of Minneapolis' Trip Shakespeare. Members Dan Wilson (guitar and lead vocals) and John Munson (bass and vocals) were half of Trip Shakespeare; the third member, Jake Silchter (drums, keyboards and backing vocals) has played in various bands over the years. A computer programmer by day, Slichter built a studio in his basement, which is where Semisonic got its start.
As Dan tells it, "John, Jake, and I played a party in Minneapolis in the fall of '92 under the name `Pleasure.' The three of us learned a batch of covers and started playing in clubs around time. It was transcendent, gloriously fun." When Trip Shakespeare faltered, this fresh, unspoiled side project became the three friends main focus.
"Of course the new band had the glitter of a new crush," admits Dan. "Still does, in a weird way."
By the summary of '93, the guys were writing and touring together full time in clubs around the mid-west. As their play list grew, so did their reputation to the point that, early in '95, they were contact by an old funk band called "Pleasure," who (as Dan puts it) "offered to sue us." Our heroes politely declined; thus, Semisonic was born.
By this time, Semisonic was playing its own brand of "trippy, atmospheric, gizmo-laden rock." After recording an EP, the trio signed with MCA and recorded Great Divide in sunny L.A.
Says Dan Wilson, "It's true, we're all into studio wankery, dicking around and coming up with stuff that only we can appreciate. But we're chasing a grander theme, and that's to make something moving and satisfying and really new."
With their hook-laden grooves and integrated harmonies, Semisonic is a talented band, and is ably piloted by veteran producer Paul Fox (who has worked with XTC, Victoria Williams, and the Sugarcubes), who helps flesh out the rock band in Semisonic. "By paying such close attention to the performances, he helped give our sound real depth," says John Munson. Adds Jake Silchter, "When you're a trio, you have to make more sound per person to catch up with all those other bands who have a huge headstart."
The dozen tracks on Great Divide are all winners, but the champion is "Across The Great Divide," a great pop single if ever there was one. Building from an acoustic beginning, "Across The Great Divide" culminates in a glorious, pop-drenched harmony bridge.
MCA has really turned itself around in recent years. Great Divide continues the label's revival. Don't miss this release.
Linda Ronstadt, Dedicated To The One I Love (Elektra 1996) - Well into her 40s, Linda Ronstadt has visited many musical genres (and sold over 30 million albums along the way). On her 29th album, Ronstadt has arranged a group of pop songs as (according to Linda) "Lullabies for children."
While I don't necessarily agree with this description, Dedicated To The One I Love is one of Linda's best albums in recent memory, as it allows her to apply her considerable interpretative and vocal skills on a clean slate.
Let's be honest. Ronstadt's days as a pop icon are long past. But she still has a great voice. Seeking a change, Ronstadt moved to Marin County several years ago, and adopted a child. Dedicated To The One I Love is an offshoot of Linda's new maternal role.
The album includes an eclectic collection of pop songs transformed into accoustic numbers, including Brian Wilson's "In My Room" (and Ronstadt shows a strong understanding of Wilson's emotional traumas on this version), "Goodnight" by Lennon and McCartney, and Queen's "We Will Rock You."
The album revels in its comfort zone using mostly flute and harp instrumentation, with some string arrangements and a glass armonica. According to Ronstadt, the armonica is "an eighteenth century glass instrument with a very soothing and seductive sound. It left room for me to work with lots of rich vocal harmonies." And that's no exageration; with the glass armonica, Ronstadt's voice sounds as good as ever.
Says Linda, "One of the things that intrigued me about doing the album was to make sure we weren't just throwing in a bunch of pop re-makes. I looked for classic rock songs that had this baby theme where I really didn't have to alter the lyrics in any way.
"I sing this record in a whisper, so it was such a discipline for me being a belter with a big voice, to have to whisper every single phrase. That was the challenge of the whole record, in a way. We kept saying `Don't wake the baby.'".
Also featured is "Be My Baby" by Phil Spector, Jeff Berry and Ellie Greenwich, together with a sweet version of "Brahmn's "Lullaby."
I've been a Ronstadt fan for years, and was disappointed by her 80's meanderings. However, the 90's have been good to Linda, as her wrk with producer George Massenburg is finally starting to gel. Dedicated To The One I Love is a sweet recording, and holds up.
-- Randy Krbechek
Copyright (c) Randy Krbechek
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