Feeling Strangely Fine

In the increasingly disposable world of '90s pop, Dan Wilson is a hooksmith without peer, and one of the most shamelessly sentimental songwriters of his generation. But then, what exactly is Wilson's generation? Given his brief tenure with the Minneapolis trio Semisonic, the singer/guitarist would appear new to the game. The fact is, though, the thirtysomething Wilson has been around longer than he'd care to acknowledge.

Dan and his brother, Matt, endured a good chunk of the 1980s in near-obscurity with the cerebral prog-pop outfit Trip Shakespeare, which had -- then quickly lost -- its golden opportunity at major-label success toward the end of that decade. The ugliness of the experience, in fact, sent both Wilsons burrowing into a reclusive funk for the first part of the '90s. Dan's been the first to re-emerge, doing so in grand fashion on Semisonic's 1996 debut, Great Divide, one of the most undervalued albums of that year and a shoulda-been mainstream breakthrough for the group, which also includes ex-Shakespeare bassist John Munson.

The new Feeling Strangely Fine is a worthy successor to Great Divide. But this time around, Wilson takes the busier, more advanced aspects of his previous release and lays them out in a simplified melodic scheme -- a strategy that ensures he isn't going over anyone's head this time around. While that dumbing-down isn't likely to thrill longtime fans of the Wilson brothers, it ought to land Semisonic on the radio, and hopefully keep them there.

With an overbearing cynicism looming in the foreground, Wilson makes his platinum aspirations crystal clear on "This Will Be My Year," singing in his animated, choir-boy tenor, "Then you tell yourself / What you want to hear / Cause you have to believe / This will be my year." As a dense, woozy Moog wash cuts through the sweet slush of guitars, Wilson enters into another verse with pronounced desperation: "Pound your fist and cross it off your list / But you know that you're not that strong." Here, it becomes even more obvious that the feigned detachment implied by the second-person narrative is a smoke screen; Wilson's bitterness is all his own.

But, as its title denotes, Feeling Strangely Fine's overall vibe is of guarded optimism. "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end," Wilson theorizes in the disc's first single, "Closing Time." He sweetens the pot even further on "California," painting the Golden State as a menacingly glorious paradox of stunning beauty and impending disaster. A lilting ballad of understated power, "California" is a sequel of sorts to "Across the Great Divide," from Semisonic's debut. Ambitious and deeply felt, both songs act as thematic anchors for their respective releases, conveying a road trip's ability to at once free the spirit and make one long for the stability of home.

Musically, Feeling Strangely Fine is not as ambitious as its predecessor, though producer Nick Launay and band engage in some neat studio trickery. The many keyboard flourishes come courtesy of drummer/synth wizard Jacob Slichter, while rampant compression and distortion effects hint at the group's enormous affection for '60s and '70s rock. If that all sounds just a wee bit, um, predictable, fair enough. Desperate times deserve desperate measures, and you can trust that even the most second-rate Semisonic is a damn sight more bearable than anything Matchbox 20 can come up with -- now or ever. If the single "Closing Time" is the hit it should be, there will be better things just down the road. (*** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

The Lynns
The Lynns

At first glance, you'd think that the Lynns are merely another of the recent glut of good-looking packages assembled by the Nashville machinery to cash in on the success of Shania Twain and Deana Carter. Think again. Patsy and Peggy are the twin daughters of country legend Loretta Lynn. That ancestry shows both in their fine harmonies and the personality displayed in their songs.

And they wrote most of the material on this, their self-titled debut. Admittedly, the sisters rely too much on cliches to be considered exceptional songwriters. Even so, their hearts and ears are in the right place, and they sprinkle enough traditional trappings throughout the album to keep it country in the best way. From the sly, rocking opener, "Crazy World of Love," to the soul-melting ballad "Nights Like These" to the CD-closing, honky-tonk-inflected "Someday," the twins go out of their way to demonstrate that country really is in their blood. (***)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Trans Am
The Surveillance
Thrill Jockey

Instrumental bands can't help being pretentious. Without a singer, songs acquire that added weight of self-importance, intended or not -- just look at most anything Windham Hill has released over the last ten years.

Trans Am, however, is one glaring exception. Without a hint of self-consciousness, this voice-free Maryland outfit combines the heaviest indie rock (in the Steve Albini vein), Kraftwerk-like homemade keyboard acumen, crisp percussion and a love of cool studio noises to come up with what sounds like a soundtrack for video games. (That's meant in a nice way.)

An arresting critique of paranoia American style, The Surveillance is Trans Am's response to a society of burglar alarms, security gates and video surveillance. It's an ostentatious idea, even from suburban white boys. Song titles such as "Armed Response," "Access Control" and "Home Security" are hardly subtle, and the same goes for the music, which is prog-rock with a '90s twist. Recorded at home by the band using minimal studio trickery, the drums are raw and the performances sound extremely alive. Songs twist about and fall over on themselves, losing their original path only to emerge in a different sonic landscape; repetitive guitar jams are undercut by electronic blips to form an ocean of pent-up anxiety; waves of static move in and out rhythmically to create enticing grooves; and fuzzed-out punk-rock bass elevates songs to an original Beastie-Boys-meets-ELP plane. Hell, there's even a drum solo two-thirds of the way through the album. Need I say more? (****)

-- David Simutis

Trans Am performs Friday, April 3, at Zelda's.

Mary Lou Lord
Got No Shadow

There is something disconcertingly Pat Boone about making a career out of covering other people's songs. And in the DIY world in which Mary Lou Lord operates, that suspicion is somewhat warranted.

For a number of years and over the course of a few cultish singles, Lord has acted as cheerleader for a host of other songwriters, chiefly Lou Barlow, Nick Saloman (of the British psycho-pop act Bevis Frond) and Elliott Smith. In the end, her devotion to doing justice to some of indie rock's most underrated moments -- coupled with her ability to excise the ache from the harshest sentiments -- has gotten her where she is today. All the while, the 33-year-old busker extraordinaire has coyly dodged the notion of writing and performing her own songs, while implying that she'd do so eventually.

Now she has -- sort of. Got No Shadow is Lord's first full-length CD after nearly a half-decade of rumors, innuendo and promise, and four of its tunes are indeed Lord originals. The rest are either borrowed or collaborative efforts of some sort. The real power of Got No Shadow, however, lies in her skill at delivering a song -- anyone's song.

Even her own. "Jingle Jangle Morning" is Lord's messy-haired response to Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man"; and the best self-generated track on Shadow, "Western Union Desperate," matches a soggy feeling of longing with a clever melody and a memorable turn of a phrase.

Rather than the solo acoustic outing some might have expected, Got No Shadow comes with its own wily cast of rock and roll characters: drummers, guitarists, bassists, like-minded hangers-on. Not that Lord couldn't have stood on her own: With her candy-apple cheeks, shock of blond hair and memorable voice, Lord exudes the kind of star power that turns heads. (***)

-- Brendan Doherty

Honest Don's

It's a shame that Hagfish's eponymous CD arrived in the mail the same week as the advance copy of the new release by ALL, the alter ego of the legendary punk band the Descendents. It's not that the Hagfish album is bad; no, "average" would be the more appropriate term. But it's hard to give a group of self-styled descendants of the Descendents your full attention when superior material from the source is sitting right next to it by the stereo.

That said, with Hagfish, this Dallas quartet makes an attempt to move away from its earlier three-minute homages to the Descendents/ALL camp. To that end, the band affects a style that sounds more like a jet-lagged Ramones doing Buddy Holly covers at a 1950s sock hop, and -- for a while, at least -- it works. Songs like "Band" and "Envy" are among the best Hagfish has ever written. "Band," with its "bop-bop-shoo-bop" chorus, is especially endearing, proving that the band can write more than odes to oral sex. Another high point is a cover of They Might Be Giants' "Twisting." Long a staple of Hagfish live shows, the tune sounds like it was written for them alone, and the band plays the hell out of it.

After that, however, Hagfish loses steam. Considering that the band used to get by on sheer energy, the songs sound tired. They just don't have the same oomph, that special something that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. And by the way, the new ALL album is set for release May 5. (** 1/2)

-- Zac Crain

Hagfish performs with Save Ferris and Home Grown Friday, April 3, at Fitzgerald's.

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame


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