When Minneapolis trio Semisonic began to work on their new album, All About Chemistry, the band found themselves in an unfamiliar position: they were no longer upstarts, underdogs or indie rockers. Instead they had a hit song and sales of two million albums worldwide to follow up.
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At home, their second album, Feeling Strangely Fine, was certified platinum, and the runaway hit song "Closing Time" was now a fixture everywhere from World Series games to high school graduations. And in the UK, another song, "Secret Smile," had launched Feeling Strangely Fine to platinum sales as well as a Brit Award nomination.
Rather than feeling pressured by all of this success, however, guitarist/songwriter Dan Wilson says the band found it liberating. "It was sometimes overwhelming to read all the e-mails we’d get about how deeply our music was affecting the fans. They told us about the joy our music brought them, but what struck me most was that they really felt like these songs were helping them to make sense of their lives and times. That’s exactly what we dream of doing when we make music. I figured we must be on the right track."
So the three multi-instrumentalists rented a large room in Minneapolis. There they mixed together a batch of brand new songs, various digital recording devices, a large pile of antique sound-processing gear, and a lot of strong opinions; and turned up the heat. It’s all about chemistry.
All About Chemistry is Semisonic’s realization of a vision that Wilson presented to his bandmates, bassist John Munson and drummer Jacob Slichter, in the early spring of 2000. "I told the guys that I thought we’d done a great introspective album last time around, but that this time I wanted to make something really different," says Wilson. "First of all I wanted us to make something that would be really fun to play on big stages like the ones we’d moved up to. And I wanted it to be an album that had the vibe of a big party, everyone’s invited. Finally, I told John and Jake that I wanted us to produce it ourselves. I figured this was a chance to get the new songs on a CD the way I heard them in my head."
Fans who’ve been waiting to find out what Grammy-nominated songwriter Wilson has up his sleeve will not be disappointed. Wilson has managed to hang onto the vivid imagery and rhymes of the band’s previous work while embracing a more universal view of human flaws and glories. The lyrics on All About Chemistry describe the sexual and social adventures of a group of friends somewhere in America. "On the last album, I wrote almost all the songs as secrets being told to just one person - like me whispering in your ear. This time around, I envisioned a big group of friends at a great party, where everyone has done a few things they’ll remember forever and everyone has done a few things that they’d rather forget."
Several of the new songs seem to be set at just such a party. In"Get A Grip," the revelers confront the inevitable fact that there’s not necessarily someone for everyone ("when the lights come on and the party’s through, there are always a few with nobody to do"). In "One True Love," co-written with the legendary Carole King, who also contributed vocals and electric piano, Wilson sings of wishing to leave the party to be "in the dark with one true love." Wilson says that co-writing with King was beyond a dream come true. "It was something I could never have even dreamed of, actually," he says. "She’s somebody whose songs are just part of my soul. I think her balance of emotional power and pop brilliance is like an ideal I’ve always been reaching for. So it was pretty amazing to find myself sitting in a room with her, singing ideas back and forth."
Some of the new songs on All About Chemistry sound unlike anything on the band’s previous discs. The sometimes bizarre and yet classic-sounding "She’s Got My Number" is powered by jungle drums, upright piano, dual fretless basses, and a buzzing hive of synthesizers and samples -- and not one note of Wilson’s signature electric guitar. The epic "I Wish" ends with a mighty jam more reminiscent of the band’s live performances than their past albums. Another departure is the heartbreaking piano ballad "Act Naturally." Says Munson, "I think ‘Act Naturally’ is the best song on the record, but the first time I heard it I thought it would be the best song on someone else’s record. I wondered how it would fit into what we do." Adds Slichter, "That’s Dan’s approach: wait until we learn how to do one thing really well and then take things in a completely different direction."
Fans of Semisonic’s live shows have long been amazed by the ability of Slichter and Munson to do double duty on keyboard and their main instruments, sometimes each playing two instruments at once. This time around the two musicians further expanded their multi-instrumental range. Slichter took over the string arrangement duties, flying to Los Angeles to conduct the chamber orchestra that graces several of the songs. "I always enjoy the look on the faces of the string players when they show up at the studio and find out that the guy on the podium with the baton is the drummer," he says. Munson took his trombone out of deep storage, laying down horns on "Chemistry" and "Surprise." He contributes guitars to several songs, plays a soaring high-octave bass solo in "I Wish," appears on Slichter’s elegiac ballad, "El Matador," playing Hammond organ, and steps to the microphone to sing "Who’s Stopping You."
And all three band members can be heard combining the latest digital technology with vintage devices to create a new generation of seductive Semisonic keyboard and sample textures. Slichter says, "We’ve always had lots of cool sounds and loops on our records, but this time around they’re louder and better. Since we produced the record ourselves, we didn’t have to explain these weird sounds to anyone."
The resulting music is the sound of three friends having a tug-of-war in the studio - the push and pull of the groove, the clash of ideas, the grace when the result is beautiful. With their new album, Semisonic are poised to renew the spark of connection with their current fans while winning over new ones. You guessed it.
It’s all about chemistry.
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