First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2008, Volume 15, #4
Written by John Metzger
Thu April 17, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Thereís a reason why nearly all of the projects upon which Dan Wilson has worked inevitably exude the same auras, moods, and feelings. Although Wilson isnít necessarily a heavy-handed producer like Daniel Lanois, he does have a tendency to gravitate toward artists who make music very much like his own. Whether itís his solo debut Free Life, his outings with Semisonic, the songs he contributed to the Dixie Chicksí Taking the Long Way, or the production flourishes he added to Mike Doughtyís Haughty Melodic and Golden Delcious, his pursuits largely have been shaded with exactly the same colors and textures. Therefore, Wilson desperately was in need of a jolt that would push him beyond his increasingly insular safety zone. Perhaps this is the reason that he was attracted to the Chicago-based outfit Absentstar, though Sea Trials, the resulting endeavor, doesnít really move Wilson into new terrain as much as it allows him to take another shot at revisiting his output with Semisonic.
Although the band officially was established in 2005, Absentstarís roots actually date back to 1999 when front man Derek Ingersoll, drummer Heath Hamilton, and guitarist Andy Dixon departed from their Indiana home with the hope of making a splash within the music industry. Slowly but surely, their gamble paid off. Cementing their line-up with the addition of bass player Noel Arnim and multi-instrumentalist Marshall Hanbury, Jr., the ensemble stormed through its performance at SXSW, earning a great deal of attention in the process. It subsequently achieved a level of momentum that has been unstoppable because, like Wilson, Absentstar has an uncanny knack for positioning its material for mainstream consumption.
Although there are similarities to Wilsonís work with Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare, Absentstarís approach also is more aggressive and raucous. As a result, its sophomore effort Sea Trials initially doesnít sound like the sort of project that Wilson ordinarily would produce. For starters, itís loud, boisterous, and overflowing with angst. Even during the setís softer passages, it frequently feels as if the band resisted Wilsonís urge to smooth its rougher edges. The electric guitars writhe, buzz, and scream through Everyone You Know, while For God Sakes is a pure adrenaline rush, albeit one that suffers from being a tad too radio-ready. At times, Ingersoll allows his voice to drift dreamily over ambient effects (Donít Lock Me Out), which gives the appearance that heís trying to be a Thom Yorke impressionist. At other moments, his anxieties get the best of him, and his vocals inevitably adopt the unfortunate overtones of a heavy metal singer (Give in to Me). Strangely, though, the more that Sea Trials is heard, the more it begins to sound like an outing by Semisonic.
For the most part, Wilson is kept in check. He doesnít temper the forcefulness of Absentstarís attack; instead, he merely helps the group to tighten up and highlight its melodies. As always, he succumbs to his instincts and spices Sea Trials with dollops of Beatle-esque flavor. Yet, the Fab Fourís presence isnít nearly as blatant as it has been on a lot of his projects. The problem with Sea Trials, however, is that ó save for Quietly Conceited, All Is Forgotten, and, perhaps, If What You Mean Is Harm ó Wilson and Absentstar never seem to find the right balance between their desired outcomes. Even if they had, though, itís not clear that Sea Trials would have fared much better because sometimes an uncomfortable mixture is better than a perfect blend. Ĺ
Sea Trials is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box