Smart Pop

Between the Barenaked Ladies' "One Week" and Fastball's "The Way," there was barely any time left to have Semisonic's "Closing Time" driven into your skull by the radio this summer. It was hard to let a day go by without hearing the Minneapolis band's breakthrough song (from their second record, Feeling Strangely Fine) or seeing them on MTV. The ubiquitous split-screen video where singer Dan Wilson and a woman pass without seeing each other even inspired a segment on The X-Files. All of this exposure catapulted the group into the mainstream with little backlash -- unlike, say, the Ladies.

The smart pop that Semisonic travels in isn't new territory, but the conviction and earnestness are rare. There are hundreds of bands with guys from the Midwest (and elsewhere) who fancy themselves songwriters in the Alex Chilton/Paul Westerberg vein, but only a handful of them do it smartly, with respect paid to the heart as well as the mind. Any English major can string together words into a semicoherent tale of love, but it takes years of practice and patience (in Wilson's case, time spent in the late-'80s/early-'90s cult outfit Trip Shakespeare) as well as that nebulous intangible: soul. Strangely Fine is a powerful record of seductive strength, a drama of lust unfolding song to song.

"Closing Time" was no fluke, even if it may be Semisonic's only hit. Strangely Fine is full of songs with the emotional depth and maturity that tap into the hopes and fears of people in their late twenties and early thirties. Penetrating and sensitive, it doesn't lose sight of the hooks or the rock end of the equation. In short, Semisonic is a great rock band that won't have to ride the short-lived success of a single.

-- David Simutis

Upcoming Events

Semisonic plays Thursday, January 28, at 8 p.m. at Numbers, 300 Westheimer, (713)629-3700. Remy Zero opens. Tickets are $13.

David Garza -- Texas native David (he prefers that you pronounce it DAH-veed, in honor of his Mexican heritage) Garza does things his own way. When his last band, Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom, started getting attention from record companies (after a humble beginning playing on UT's campus for spare change), Garza quit the band. Instead, he took his show on the road, touring for seven years and self-releasing albums that he self-recorded. Eventually, the record industry came calling again, with Lava/Atlantic giving him the freedom to do what he had been doing, only on a wider scale. His major label debut, This Euphoria, with its mixture of ELO-inspired pop, lo-fi ambiance, straight-ahead rock and Garza's heartfelt singing, won over a lot of critics, but it wasn't easily categorized, leaving it overlooked. But that hasn't slowed or deterred Garza; he'll continue to make his own path. David Garza plays Saturday, January 30, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, (713)862-7625. Jump Little Children opens. Tickets are $7. (David Simutis)

Roseanna Vitro -- Roseanna Vitro is fearless. How many female jazz singers would try to pull off Catchin' Some Rays: The Music of Ray Charles? Vitro not only pulled off the Ray Charles tribute, she even got Charles's longtime sideman David "Fathead" Newman to lend his talents to the proceedings. Longtime Houston jazz fans, of course, are quite familiar with Vitro. In the late '70s she moved to Houston from Texarkana, was taken under the wing of tenor sax legend Arnette Cobb and hosted a weekly jazz program on KUHF-FM. Since leaving Houston for New York City, Vitro has sung with some of jazz's top names, toured with Lionel Hampton, recorded six albums and won a few critics' polls. Currently the Director of the Jazz Vocal Program at Jersey City State College, Vitro is a powerful yet underrated jazz singer who can spice up the mix with solid blues. Roseanna Vitro performs at 9 p.m. on Friday, January 29, and Saturday, January 30, at Cezanne, 4100 Montrose, (713)522-9621. Tickets are $12. (Paul MacArthur)

Bobby "Blue" Bland -- Like his lifelong friend, frequent touring mate and former employer, B.B. King (for whom he used to be a chauffeur before launching his own career), Bobby "Blue" Bland has aged well like the Tennessee whiskey of his home state, becoming a living icon of the blues. But while King is a crossover smash and the wide-smiling, crowd-pleasing grandfather you wish you had, Bland's style is more sophisticated, big-band ballad crooning (always delivered in an impeccable suit) that never really crossed over into a wider market. That's too bad, because a large audience is missing his distinctive elegance and smooth-as-milk-chocolate delivery. Though his recording career has gone through many stages, Bland made his biggest impact in the '50s and '60s on Houston's own Duke Records label, his catalog of hits eventually including such songs as "Farther up the Road," "Turn on Your Love Light," "That's the Way Love Is," and the pre-Mr. T "I Pity the Fool." His '90s recordings on Malaco have won new converts (and shown a heavier gospel influence), and he's been inducted into both the Blues Foundation and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bobby "Blue" Bland is the epitome of flashy cool all the way and has forgotten more about romance than Saturday Night Live's "The Ladies' Man" could ever remember. Stick that in your Courvoisier and sip it. Bobby "Blue" Bland performs Friday, January 29, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond, (713)266-9294. Tickets are $30. (Bob Ruggiero


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