Reaching back instead of forward, songwriter Dan Wilson collaborated with Carole King on one song and embraced Pro Tools to nurture sounds created on vintage instruments and equipment. When the melodies are sweet, as on the single "Chemistry" and "Follow," the results build on and better the group's massively successful single "Closing Time" and its companion album, Feeling Strangely Fine. When the songs falter, the era they suggest isn't British Invasion or classic American pop but midperiod Mike and the Mechanics, as on the saccharine "Act Naturally."
But leaving a fresh trail on the blade doesn't bother drummer Jake Slichter, who, like Wilson and bass player John Munson, shares a full third of the responsibility for the band's craving for invention. Each member is equally adept on at least one other instrument, and for the first time, Semisonic produced its own album. Any slickness, then, was the band members' idea, something just enough songs on Chemistry give them the right to feel proud of.
"We wanted to make a different record," Slichter says from his Minneapolis home during downtime between publicity appearances and the band's first full tour in two years. "I felt like Feeling Strangely Fine was a beautifully made sixteen-millimeter black-and-white French film, moody and soft-textured. I wanted to make something panoramic, big-screen, seventy-millimeter, shiny, bright and rich. So we looked for textures that lent themselves to that. For instance, a string section."
Slichter handled arranging duties for Chemistry's orchestral embellishments, a talent that dates from school days spent playing cello. "I've done lots of string arrangements for different bands and artists," says Slichter, whose work is influenced by Elton John guru Paul Buckmaster as well as Aaron Copland and George Martin. "You have to have an ear for melody. When I arrange for Dan, I tap into his ideas without necessarily discussing them at length, which is why we're a great band." Asked whether the usual jokes regarding a drummer's limitations follow him onto the riser when he conducts his arrangements, Slichter says, "No. I just conduct with a drumstick."
Slichter's sense of humor, something else he shares with his bandmates (Wilson and Munson emerged from the ashes of Wilson's brother Matt's brilliantly warped pop outfit Trip Shakespeare, which had a deadly wit), allows him to take criticism in stride. He acknowledges the burden of a hit single and its inevitable backlash, something "Closing Time" experienced after becoming a staple at public events even after it wore out its welcome on the radio.
"You know, I generally tell people that the band is not in charge of how much airplay we get." Slichter pauses, then adds with a laugh, "Otherwise, we'd be on all the time on all stations. Basically, people understand that. People who are really music fans, not just radio listeners. We are music fans, and I feel passionately for and against songs I come across, so I like it when people take our music seriously. We do. But we take our music, the making of it, seriously without taking ourselves seriously. A certain backlash is to be expected, even hoped for. You want your listeners to be passionate. You have to feel that what you have to say is worth saying, worth someone paying attention to. And whether or not you're in a big rock band, you tell that by how your friends react to you. If someone raises a valid criticism, they may just be onto something. But I don't think a major part of my job description is to accept or reject criticism." Slichter says all this without a trace of upset or sarcasm, genuinely secure. He's more likely to worry about what Munson and Wilson say -- which, he argues, is how it should be.
"I take every decision we make personally," Slichter says, asked whether he campaigns for more than one or two of his own songs to be included on Semisonic albums. (This time, he gets the closer, the album's most sincere ballad, "El Matador.") "I totally trust John and Dan, which is the key to any band. I wouldn't want my songs to be on an album because they feel sorry for Jake."
As it turns out, the Chemistry sessions were especially productive, leaving no room for the outtakes and B-sides Slichter says the band hopes to eventually issue. "I wrote a bunch of songs for this album, but we kept 'El Matador' because it was an early favorite. There are always way too many songs for any given album, and part of how you choose what to keep is the way the songs work together."
Chemistry bulged at the seams because the band spent a chunk of its two-year break recording a version of the disc that the bandmates later scrapped. "We had a three-month false start," Slichter explains. "We decided we were heading in a less than fruitful direction. But we re-recorded a couple of things that turned out great, and we began a couple that may be on something down the road." For a band possibly more concerned with the chemistry of making sounds and songs than making records, the desire to experiment might be enough to ensure that the road, sharp or not, is long.