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Music Reviews

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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Dan Wilson
Free Life

Rating: 7.6/10 ?

October 15, 2007
If you were alive in the late 1990s and had a least one good ear, then chances are you heard Semisonic's "Closing Time" blaring from every frat bar, gas station, and elevator with a speaker. But even as the band's inescapable ode to the club scene ruled Modern Rock radio, few listeners outside Semisonic's circle of devoted fans could've put the name Dan Wilson to the band's bespectacled frontman. The unassuming Minnesotan was hardly a stranger to critics and fellow musicians, though, his uncanny ear for enduring melodies a longtime subject of praise. Since Semisonic's uneven swansong, 2001's All About Chemistry, Wilson has become a sought after songwriter and producer, working with artists like Jason Mraz, Rachael Yamagata, Jewel, and the Dixie Chicks. In fact, his co-writing contribution to the Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice" earned him the Grammy Award for Song of the Year back in February. After several years of parent company label hassles, Wilson is now set to release his solo debut.

Not surprisingly, Wilson lives up to his reputation as a consummate songwriter on Free Life. His musing on beauty, "All Kinds," opens the album, moving seamlessly from a sleepy verse into a simple but captivating chorus. It should be said, however, that the lyrics are a bit lazy. The song is the first of several on which Wilson veers into vague philosophizing or pedestrian phrasing: "One life is all we ever get/ and all we ever give up for it in return/ is all of the ones we might have been/ just one kind of beautiful each in our turn/ innocence and consequence/ I only hope we never learn."

With a naturally plaintive timbre, Wilson's voice is tailor-made for melancholy tunes, but he falters with the cloying ballads "Come Home Angel" and "Honey Please," the latter of which sounds like a song he could've penned for Barry Manilow. The delicate "Sugar" fares better, as Sheryl Crow lends harmonies on the track (more noticeably than on Ryan Adams' "Two," I might add), and her voice dovetails nicely with Wilson's light vocal. Although Wilson's ostensibly impromptu "one more time" and "here we go" are corny, the gentle, aching melody is an indelible one.

Free Life isn't the hook-filled feast of Feeling Strangely Fine, but Wilson doesn't entirely abandon uptempo pop. Acoustic guitars and a fast-fingered piano line courtesy of the Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench propel the energetic "Against History," and the folk-pop gem "She Can't Help Me Now," with its playful falsetto chorus, recalls a bit of Wilson's Semisonic oeuvre. "Breathless" doesn't deviate much from the age-old formula for dynamic pop songs about unrequited love - start softly, build tension with added instrumentation, burst into a dramatic chorus - but Wilson makes the formula work, matching the intensity of the pounding chorus with his best vocal performance on the album.

For all of Wilson's acute songcraft, though, some of the songs are like old soda - sweet but flat. "Baby Doll" and "Free Life" are nothing if not pleasant, but neither is particularly engaging. The album's first single, "Cry," tries to generate the emotive surge of "Breathless" but lacks the same sense of urgency, in part because it just sounds so darn polished. As sound quality goes, the production on the entire album is superb - no fussy instrumentation, no sizzling Pro Tools, just a rich, natural tone. But on a number of songs - especially the "old soda" tracks - Wilson and co-producer Rick Rubin burnish the sound so smooth and arrange the songs so tightly that they lose any sense of freshness or spontaneity.

Free Life is an undeniably solid, well-crafted album, but overall it sounds too safe, too comfortable. The handful of standout tracks found on the album, not to mention the best songs from Wilson's past work, suggest he's capable of better.

Reviewed by Jason Middlekauff
No biographical information is currently available.

See other reviews by Jason Middlekauff



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