Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

APRIL 20, 1998: 

Semisonic, Feeling Strangely Fine (MCA)

With their second full-length album, Feeling Strangely Fine, Minneapolis-based trio Semisonic shake the sophomore jinx and deliver a dozen finely crafted songs that shine like crazy diamonds. From the opening tour de force, “Closing Time” (featuring the true Zen saying, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”) to the quiet closer, “Gone To The Movies,” every track resonates with a shimmering strength that no overnight sensation could provide.

The road to success for Semisonic hasn’t been an easy one. Dan Wilson (guitar, lead vocalist, and songwriter) and John Munson (bass, vocals) have paid their dues in the rock arena for more than a decade – moving from cult favorites (anyone out there remember Trip Shakespeare?) to unknown again (the embryonic Pleasure) to back on the charts (the current version of Semisonic, enhanced by their multi-talented percussionist and utility man, Jacob Slichter). Semisonic come across as the voice of experience on Feeling Strangely Fine, with the subject matter being an assortment of lustrous love songs – for the lost, the found, the faithful, and the unfaithful.

With the assistance of Australian producer Nick Launay (Midnight Oil, Public Image Ltd.) and sonic stalwart Bob Clearmountain, Semisonic add just enough studio gloss to keep the proceedings interesting without going overboard. A few new wrinkles: the old Mellotron gets dusted off to good effect for “She Spreads Her Wings,” and even strings and flutes are seamlessly meshed throughout a third of the record (particularly on the unabashed valentine, “Secret Smile”). A perfect blend of style and substance, Feeling Strangely Fine is that rare effort where good intentions attain successful (and highly listenable) conclusions.

Yet, for all their solid rocking, Semisonic can be amazingly funky (check out “Completely Pleased” for proof). Longtime fans of the band will notice the presence of Matt Wilson (Dan’s brother and cohort in Trip Shakespeare) contributing lead guitar on “Never You Mind,” a scornful diatribe to a difficult lover with the priceless lyric, “Open the blinds and the world is in rotation/Shaking my mind like an Etch-a-Sketch erasing.” Other breathless moments include “This Will Be My Year” and “Made To Last,” a tribute to the band’s fans (and to Semisonic’s perseverance as well).

Semisonic and their “strangely fine” music have the capacity to transport one to an elsewhere worth checking out and lingering in/at for a while. With only Matthew Sweet, World Party, Tommy Keene, and the Shazam carrying on in the same hallowed tradition, Semisonic emerge as the Great White Hope of Power Pop. – David D. Duncan

Norman Blake, Chattanooga Sugar Babe (Shanachie)

Few folk and bluegrass guitarists have earned the respect accorded to Norman Blake, who has played with Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, June Carter Cash, John Hartford, Peter Rowan, and Steve Earle, plus about a million others over the last four decades. His newest disc, Chattanooga Sugar Babe, is a slice of pure Americana. His longtime musical and nuptial companion Nancy is on a brief sabbatical, so this is a solo effort by Norman, his first in nearly a decade. In addition to Blake’s earnest singing, he also plays guitars, fiddle, mandolin, National Resonator guitar, 6-string guitar banjo, mandolin banjo, and Hawaiian guitar.

This is a collection of story songs, tales set to music that focus on mining, the American West, railroads, and other such fare. The disc opens with “The Rescue From Moose River Goldmine,” a saga about a tragic mine accident. Blake also sings the traditional “The Founding Of The Famous C.P.R.,” about the Canadian Railroad, as well as “Platonia The Pride Of The Plains,” a song about a fleet-footed horse who helps a man in peril.

Blake shows his deep understanding of the American-folk song idiom, penning several outstanding tunes that are steeped in the style and flavor of the traditional tunes found on this fine disc. Notable is his “Ol’ Bill Miner (The Gentleman Bandit),” about a legendary train robber with a nearly endless ability to escape from jail.

Blake’s vocal delivery is simple and effective; he’s no showman, but sings everything just right and comfortable – close your eyes and you can imagine him singing down on the porch of the corner country store, say about 1910 or so. Toss in his brilliant picking (this disc is a multi-tracked showcase of multi-instrumental virtuosity), and Chattanooga Sugar Babe emerges as a great set of songs that imparts a timeless feel, one that evokes a mythical American folk past. It’s all convincingly and beautifully delivered by a master. This is as good as contemporary folk music gets. – Gene Hyde

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