Designer Pop For A Hit-Driven World

The first quarter of 1998 brought with it a spate of ingenious hit

singles, providing hope that the one-hit wonder era brought on by

modern-rock radio's infatuation with novelty records may finally be

drawing to a close. The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," Ben

Folds Five's "Brick," Fastball's "The Way" and Natalie Imbruglia's

"Torn" have much in common: a knockout chorus hook; a taut

arrangement; a captivating vocal; a discernible premise laid out in

straightforward language; and enough sound and vision to

indicate that the artist -- or the artist/producer combo -- could very

well hit the mark again. Along with Marcy Playground's

refreshingly understated "Sex and Candy" and Radiohead's tasty

"Karma Police," these records have given modern-rock playlists a

sustained headiness largely absent since the format's alternative


For my money, the most impressively-calculated record-making of

the year so far is found in the 3:51 (for the radio edit) of "Closing

Time," a brilliantly-designed and brilliantly-executed concoction

from the Minneapolis-based trio Semisonic (a spinoff of smart-pop

progenitor Trip Shakespeare). Working with veteran producer Nick

Launay (best-known for his work with Midnight Oil) and A&R rep

Hans Haedelt, writer/singer/guitarist Dan Wilson and his

bandmates have managed, with seeming effortlessness, to

transcend their prior status as an

underexposed cult band by tailoring their natural musical

tendencies toward Beatlesque pop (apparent throughout their

1995 debut album, Great Divide) to more closely coincide

with contempo-hit conventions. That they've done so seamlessly

and without apparent compromise is what makes "Closing Time"

not just a hit single but a tour de force.

There's nothing hidden about the techniques they've employed --

a close listen will reveal them all. Notice, for starters, how the track

is set up by a simple yet seductive layering device: first a chorded

electric guitar, then a piano figure, then a string section -- that's the

setup. Notice how each line in each verse begins with the clearly

enunciated title phrase (talk about product identification) -- that's

hook No. 1. Notice how Wilson holds back on his predilection for

White Album-style hot licks in favor of chorus-introducing,

LOUD power chords following those mellow verses -- that's

Nirvana's trick, and it's hook No. 2. Notice how the last line you

hear is the one that stays with you: "Every new beginning comes

from some other beginning's end" -- it's the song's thematic payoff.

The principals have left nothing to chance at the mix stage, either,

initially hiring Bob Clearmountain (who cemented his rep as

master-mixer in the '80s) to optimize the album and then bringing

in today's hottest pop-rock mix specialist, Jack Joseph Puig, to put

his stamp on the track. Both mixes appear on the promotional CD

single that MCA sent to radio stations, and there's no way of telling

which mix the alt-rock station in your town has chosen to play.

There's not much to choose between the Puig and Clearmountain

mixes, although the Puig mix was selected for the album.

This stunning piece of work has done precisely what the band, its

production team and MCA hoped it would, putting Semisonic all

over the radio and not just breaking the single but selling the

album, dramatically enhancing the band's career momentum in

the bargain. There's enough content on Feeling Strangely

Fine to cement the bond between Semisonic and the listeners

who have shelled out their dough for the record; the band has

provided enough melody and substance to keep the customers

satisfied and likely bring them back for more when they follow up

this effort in the year 2000.

If "Closing Time" is the lure for people to buy the album, once

they've done so the track functions as the lead-in to a song cycle

that illuminates the stages of the mating ritual. From the opener's

description of a late-night pickup that just might be the beginning

of a courtship, the album moves from the getting-to-know-you

phase ("Singing In My Sleep") through a longing for permanence

("Made to Last"); a relationship-threatening fight ("Never You

Mind"); growing intimacy ("Secret Smile"); erotic bliss ("DND,"

short for "Do Not Disturb," and "Completely Pleased"); and elation

("This Will Be My Year," written by drummer Jake Slichter), right up

to the wedding plans ("All Worked Out").

Of these nine songs, the other big winners are "Singing in My

Sleep," which has a killer premise (the guy begins to fall for the girl

as he listens to a compilation cassette she's made), a cool

keyboard figure under the verses and a soaring chorus hook; and

"Never You Mind," distinguished by an even more melodically-

compelling chorus and smoking guitar work by Dan's brother (and

ex-Trip Shakespeare member), Matt.

Wilson and company resist the temptation to blithely send the

happy couple off into the sunset, however. Trouble appears in the

final three songs, as wanderlust ("California," bassist John

Munson's "She Spreads Her Wings") eventually leads to

dissolution (the closing elegy, "Gone to the Movies"). So if you

want a happy ending, program out tracks 10-12. The real happy

ending, though, belongs to Semisonic, who have crafted

themselves a career.