All About Chemistry


MCA Records, 2001

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I would make a lousy sportscaster. Not for lack of enthusiasm or knowledge; no, my downfall would be perspective. I'm what they call a "homer." I always root for my team, no matter how they're performing on the field. (This is surely one of the severest after-effects of growing up cheering for the San Francisco Giants between 1972 and 1986.)

These thoughts come to mind when approaching the troublesome third album from Minnesota trio Semisonic. Their second album, 1998's Feeling Strangely Fine, was one of that year's musical highlights. Filled with clever hooks, intriguing sonic quirks and witty come-ons, the band proclaimed it "make-out music for the millennium," and I wasn't about to argue. The huge single "Closing Time" was just the tip of the iceberg for this terrific album.

All of which set up high hopes for All About Chemistry as I waited… and waited… and waited. Three years in the making, this album nonetheless arrives feeling underdeveloped. Ditching Aussie producer Nick Launay, the band elected to self-produce. No doubt the label wasn't thrilled, and for once, they may have had a point.

The first big change on this album is that most of these 12 new songs are piano-based. It seems Semisonic's chief songwriter Dan Wilson bought an electric piano after the success of my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Feeling Strangely Fine and just couldn't tear himself away from it. The end result is a couple of very pretty ballads and too many songs that lack the sonic punch of the band's earlier work.

The kickoff title cut appears to be intended as the band's stab at another "Closing Time," reaching for a memorable hook and wringing as much juice out of it as possible. And it's a good one; the problem, here and elsewhere on this album, is that the lyrics don't quite cut it. Where Feeling Strangely Fine brims with clever phrases and keen insights, All About Chemistry suffers from patchy songwriting. "Chemistry" is hooky as anything but falters on the weakness of its too-predictable lyric.

Compounding the pain, "Chemistry" is followed by the cringe-y "Bed." I've read that it was meant as satire, making fun of a guy whose carnal impulses get the better of his judgment, but the joke falls flat to these ears. The startling twist is that "Bed" segues right into "Act Naturally," one of the finest tracks Semisonic has ever recorded. A gorgeous, aching plea from one side to the other of a fractured relationship, it's anchored by Wilson's evocative piano and soaring harmonies. Heart-tuggingly beautiful, it couldn't be more different from the track that precedes it.

The highlights of the rest of the album can be summed up quickly: the buzzing guitar on "Sunshine & Chocolate"; the extended outro on "I Wish," featuring a nice solo from head Jayhawk Gary Louris; the shimmering, poignant Wilson-Carole King duet "One True Love"; and the album-closer, drummer Jacob Slichter's wistful, gorgeous "El Matador." The only other cut of note would be "Get A Grip," in which Wilson, uh, reaches for a complement to Feeling Strangely Fine's grooving, orgasmic "Completely Pleased" and ends up with a giddy ode to self-love. It might have made a funny outtake -- song #5 on a CD single -- but placed along side the likes of "Act Naturally," "One True Love," and "El Matador," it's the skunk at the garden party.

In addition to an uneven set of songs, this album also suffers from over-production. Where Feeling Strangely Fine took great songs and added sonic flourishes, All About Chemistry takes lesser cuts and dresses them up with all manner of sonic doodads, noodling distractions that not only don't add substance, but at times seem to underscore some of the songs' shortcomings.

And yet, like a true homer, I'm still in this band's corner. They've shown in the past that they're capable of greatness, and this album doesn't suggest they'll never attain it again, only that they're as human as the rest of us. When it comes to a band with this much talent, I'll always hope for more.

Rating: B-

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© 2001 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.