One Night At First Avenue, by Semisonic
This album is, at least as far as I know, the only live album ever recorded and released by Semisonic over the course of their career. It tells the listener more or less what one would expect to see, in that it shows Semisonic dealing in a warm manner with an appreciative hometown crowd during the latter part of their active period in the early 2000’s. The setlist focuses on “Great Divide,” the first album the band recorded, but contains material from all of the releases up to that time, including their Best of compilation that was released just as they were about to be dropped from MCA after the failure of “All About Chemistry.” If there is an overall approach to the live performance that is obvious, it is that Dan Wilson’s voice comes off as being rather thin and even more whiny than in studio and that the band as a whole is grittier than their power pop production live. This is, in other words, the sort of rock album that they wanted to be thought of by the rock crowd and not the more ambivalent power pop/alternative band they were in the studio. A track-by-track review follows:
Sculpture Garden: An early ode to love written by drummer Jacob Slichter, this song is the only one that came from the “Pleasure EP” that was not included on any other works by the band. It is a strong point from that initial EP, though, and makes for an effective opener to showcase the band’s interest in love songs and pretensions at high culture.
F.N.T.: One of the early singles from “Great Divide,” this song showcases the band in their post-grunge mode, with another ode to love and devotion to someone who is a fascinating new thing but will still be worthy of love and devotion when she is no longer new, a noble sentiment that is easy to appreciate.
Never You Mind: One of the songs off of “Feeling Strangely Fine,” this song is an energetic number and makes for an effective live performance, showing the band in a mood to show off their soundtrack pop numbers for a hometown crowd that almost certainly knows most of these numbers well.
In Another Life: This song is one of the more obscure deep cuts from “Great Divide,” and it makes for a pleasant listening experience. If it’s not an amazing song it’s certainly a good one and a touching one and makes for a nice change of pace for the concert.
Down In Flames: Continuing the theme of showcasing songs from “Great Divide” comes the first single and music video from that album, a rousing number that expresses a good deal of dissatisfaction at the course of life and relationships, which is a common enough theme but one done well here.
One True Love: One of the highlights of “All About Chemistry,” this song really should have been an AC or Hot AC single for the group instead of “Act Naturally.” At any rate, the band deals well with the absence of co-writer and duet partner Carole King and the track is handled with an odd but interesting rhythm as well as excellent backup singing.
If I Run: Another strong track from “Great Divide,” this particular song is an upbeat number with a lot of nice instrumentation that is handled well by the band and is obviously a familiar song to the audience as well, which is all the better because it’s a good song and an enjoyable one to listen to.
Chemistry: The lead single from “All About Chemistry” and first song from that album, this song finds Dan Wilson in the mood to encourage the audience in a bit of a singalong, as well as encouraging a bit of riffing on the part of the band concerning the instrumental tracks, making this song a bit of a jam session for the group, in a good way.
Delicious: This song, another one coming from “Great Divide” as well as the second Friends soundtrack,, shows the group in a familiar mood of expressing appreciation for the love and sensuality that comes from having a loving partner. It’s easy enough to see why this track, which fits along with such numbers as “Completely Pleased” or “Sunshine And Chocolates” from later albums, would be a popular one with the female fans of the group.
Closing Time: This song, the big hit of the group of of “Feeling Strangely Fine”, is played well, and it is obvious that this song pretty much has to be played any time the band has a concert because it is the one song that even the casual fans of the group will know well. It is telling that this song is held towards the end so as to build up anticipation, though, but is not saved for the encore.
Because: This song is the only cover included, and it is a great one, a Beatles cover with close harmonies between all of the members of the band, making for a melancholy and gorgeous listening experience. If this was a common cover for the band to do it must have been one that was appreciated night after night because it’s well done.
Secret Smile: Another one of the singles from “Feeling Strangely Fine,” this song is another relatively slow number as one can see the band mixing in faster and slower numbers to keep the crowd’s energy from getting too hyped too early. Again, we see a song that was quite a poppy number in the studio sound far more grungy live.
Over My Head: This song, a soundtrack song that was included on their “Best of” collection and on some international versions of “All About Chemistry,” is definitely a strong one, and the band does it well, even if it was likely one of the more obscure numbers to the audience that was listening to it.
Singing In My Sleep: The second hit single from “Feeling Strangely Fine,” this song is such an obvious testament to the band’s nerdiness and their fondness for mixtapes and the aspects of musical culture of the 1990’s that it is an obvious way to close the main set to an appreciative hometown audience. Giving the audience an obvious hit is a solid way to go, and the song ends up with some appreciative cheers.
Great Divide: The cheers, of course, lead the band to do one more song for an encore, and they choose the title track of “Great Divide,” a beautiful song that is performed in an upbeat fashion to close the concert as well as the album on a high note, and is testament to the way that the band kept their repertoire going throughout their entire career rather than dropping early albums that came before their mainstream success.
Overall this album is what one would expect from a Semisonic live performance. If the performance isn’t nearly as polished and there aren’t nearly as many instrumental touches that make the albums so wonderful for fans of their pop sound, this is an album for the rock crowds and it’s one that appears to have been greatly appreciated by the audience in Minneapolis, at any rate.