Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Oh Danny Boy

No, Dan Wilson hasn't exactly been sitting on his hands since Semisonic's last (and possibly final) album went bust in 2001.

Remember that big Dixie Chicks record last year? The one that swept all the Grammy's and exacted a little vengeance on all those country fans who turned their back on the group after lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against President Bush?

Well, Wilson co-wrote six of the 14 tracks on Taking the Long Way – including "Not Ready to Make Nice," which won last year's Grammy for Record of the Year.

Unfortunately, despite that Grammy, Wilson (and Semisonic) have already been relegated to the "one hit wonder" ghetto, thanks to "Closing Time." But it's not a worthy label. Because Semisonic's three-album output (four, if you count the independently released Pleasure EP) contains some of the most well-crafted pop you are likely to find this side of Brian Wilson.

Continuing that trend, the former Trip Shakespeare frontman released his first solo album this past October with. And if you liked Semisonic, you're really going to love this record.

Released on Rick Rubin’s American label in October, Free Life showcases what have always been Wilson’s most appealing qualities: His delicate voice and his sense of Brill Building pop. “Free Life” is filled with slowly building songs that worm their way into listeners’ hearts.

Rubin, the former Beastie Boy producer who earned his musical credibility by producing the remarkable series of late Johnny Cash albums, is the perfect man behind the boards for Wilson. He knows when to put in the musical flourishes – and when to hold back, allowing songs to bloom on their own.

Wilson's brand of pop is a sophisticated one. His melodies don't always go off in predictable directions. And the bridges in his songs seem to be crafted with such a high attention to detail that they work perfectly with the rest of the song – something many modern composers forget to do.

For me, his songwriting style harkens back to Carole King – who collaborated with Wilson on one of Semisonic's shining moments, "One True Love," from All About Chemistry (2001). More about that song later in this post.

Not all of the tracks on Free Live are standout. “Sugar,” with backing vocal from Sheryl Crow (who once toured with Semisonic), meanders too much. But many of them deserve the same kind of respect that “Not Ready to Make Nice” received.

The shimmering “Breathless” is a pop gem, for example. As is “She Can’t Help Me Now.”

Two other tracks are worthy of extra attention: Wilson’s version of “Easy Silence,” in which he manage to put his own spin on a song he originally gave away to the Dixie Chicks. And “Hand on My Heart,” in which he writes from the perspective of a soldier injured in Iraq.

Download "Breathless"

Back to "One True Love." For what was (so far) Semisonic's final album, MCA put Wilson together with King, a professed fan of the band's work. The two apparently composed together via phone and email before coming together in the studio. According to the band's drummer Jacob Schlicter in his excellent behind-the-scenes book, So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star, he was so excited to see King that, when she walked in the studio, he immediately hugged her.

Pretty appropriate. Because I consider this pop gem the equivalent of warm hug.

Download "One True Love"


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip about Dan Wilson's solo album. i wasn't aware that he released an album in 2007. Semisonic were actually a great band. I loved that 'Chemistry' song - a cracker, although they will always be remembered for 'Secret Smile'. Shame they split up.

Rob said...

I'm not sure they have officially split up. As of now, with no record deal or anybody considering them beyond a one-hit "could've been," they just have no reason to get back together. That said, both Slichter and John Munson appear on Free Life.

Also, as a Semisonic fan, if you haven't already read Slichter's book So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star , I most heartily recommend it.