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Semisonic
Great Divide
MCA

Precious few know this, but Semisonic's Dan Wilson has already been a party to what is arguably the most lucid back-to-nature statement any post-punk band has made this decade. It happened with his last group, the overtly ambitious Trip Shakespeare, in the summer of 1990: Dan, his brother Matt and close pals John Munson and Elaine Harris tucked themselves away in a Minnesota forest, working in a cabinlike studio that, for weeks, doubled as their living quarters. The bucolic surroundings became such a factor in the recording of Lulu -- Trip Shakespeare's second and last major-label release -- that the band ended the CD with the sound of crickets chirping outside the studio.

The music that came out of that wilderness experience was rustically familiar without being derivative: tight, soaring harmonies, succulent melodies and instrumental constructs that evoked the best of '60s and '70s art-rock drama. The Minneapolis scene's answer to Jethro Tull, Trip Shakespeare had given the '90s retro-pop movement its Songs from the Wood, and the band celebrated by breaking up.

There's plenty on Great Divide to indicate that Dan Wilson and John Munson haven't abandoned their breezy Shakespearean muse with Semisonic (just look at the detailed nature scene on the cover), but they have toughened, modernized and refined it somewhat. Gone, for the most part, are Trip Shakespeare's cutesy-baroque embellishments, quirky time signatures and self-consciously mystical prattle. In their place are guitars just grungy enough for post-Cobain legitimacy; simple tunes about lust, love, growing up and moving on; relaxed pop hooks that settle over you like a warm mist; and a surplus of Wilson's reedy, mock-operatic tenor/falsetto.

Smarter than they seem at first, "If I Run," "Delicious" and "f.n.t." (short for "fascinating new thing") are harmony-rich radio fuel, as hard-grooving as they are pristine; "Across the Great Divide" is a fluff-free mini-epic; and Munson's pretty, naive "In Another Life" could have been a Top 40 hit in 1968, and holds up just fine now. In fact, nearly all of Great Divide holds up admirably in the present, even as it gives off the dusky odor of an old eight-track collection unearthed from the attic. One of the year's best. (**** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Herb Ellis
Down Home
Justice

The ten original compositions on jazz guitarist Herb Ellis's latest release, Down Home, range in style from bluesy swing to fetching ballads. Each has the feel of a well-weathered classic, and when the tempo is bumped up, Ellis's considerable experience as an earthy, straight-ahead technician shines within his ornate fret work.

But where Ellis says the most on Down Home is in the easy, quiet moments. A big Texan with a soft tone, Ellis came to the forefront during the big-band era of the 1940s. A decade later, he defined his Charlie Christian-inspired style with Oscar Peterson's trio before taking his expertise to the small screen as a television session man. Forty years later, Ellis's work for the Justice label marries him with a fresh herd of capable players. On Down Home he's backed by Stefan Karlsson on piano and Rebecca Coupe Franks on trumpet, neither of whom challenge Ellis's tradition-bound aesthetic, which is the way it should be. Deft and lyrical, Ellis chooses soft musical reflection over bold musical challenges, and the result is a relaxing keeper. (***)

-- Brendan Doherty

Blind Melon
Nico
Capitol

Rock has a long-standing mythos in place to embrace its casualties who burn out but never quite fade away. Just where Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon -- who died of an accidental drug overdose on his tour bus in New Orleans after a Houston show -- fits among Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin and Cobain is uncertain. Blind Melon, after all, had only two releases and spawned little more than a single one-hit monster in "No Rain." Sure, Blind Melon surfed the alt-rock wave, but the mythos requires mystery, and the only mystery associated with Blind Melon was how a slapdash band managed to get famous melding the sounds of Edie Brickell and Yes in the first place.

Nico (named after Hoon's daughter, Nico Blue) reinforces that mystery. It also reveals that Hoon left the remaining band little to work with. There's a sloppy reprise of "No Rain" that the band used as a live intro to the hit version of the song and "Life Ain't So Shitty," recorded -- passing car horns and all -- in a St. Louis hotel room. Cover-wise, Hoyt Axton's "The Pusher" (attributed in the liner notes to Steppenwolf) and John Lennon's "John Sinclair" get the laid-back hippie-blues treatment. The disc-closing "Letters from a Porcupine" is reconstructed, or maybe just lifted, from an answering machine message Hoon left for guitarist Christopher Thorn. (Nico, by the way, is an enhanced CD suitable for CD-ROM computer stuff, but I'm not an enhanced-type guy, so we're only dealing with the music here.)

There are hints on Nico -- such as "Soul One" -- that Blind Melon may have had another hit or two up its sleeve, but the stronger feeling is of unfinished, and not terribly important, business. Nico may provide the comfort of nostalgia to seriously bereaved fans, and it begs empathy with its dedication to young Nico Blue and the band's profit sharing with the anti-addiction Musicians' Assistance Program, but for anyone else, Nico is just the kind of sad -- and not very interesting -- tailings of a mediocre band that doesn't get to be even that anymore. (**)

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