CD Review of Semi-Twang’s Wages of Sin (March 2011)
Semi-Twang/Wages of Sin/Released March 2011
By Julie Wenger Watson
Once in a while, without even looking for it, really great music just falls in your lap. Through a serendipitous chain of events, this recently happened to me. A copy of Semi-Twang’s Wages of Sin arrived in my mailbox via Mike Fredrickson (bass player for Robbie Fulks’ band and an amazing visual artist). “I’m going to send you my friends’ CD,” Mike had said. “I think they’d go over well in Tulsa,” he added somewhat cryptically. From the first play, I knew he was right.
Wages of Sin is Semi-Twang’s second release. Their first album, Salty Tears, debuted over 20 years ago on the Warner Bros label to much critical acclaim, but unfortunately, not a lot of label support. The second act is well worth the almost quarter-century intermission. These twelve tracks of soulful, rootsy, R&B-roadhouse-rock, with their smart lyrics and impressive musicianship, will have you shaking your tail while you sing along. Yes, there’s some “twang” here, but there’s also plenty of funk, a little punk, and some straight ahead rock n’ roll.
Splitting from Warner after that initial release, band members went their separate musical ways, reuniting in their original line up in 2009 for a 20-year anniversary of Shank Hall, a venerable music venue in their hometown of Milwaukee. Inspired by the gig, the band decided to record a second album that includes ten songs (a mix of older, unrecorded and new) written by band front man John Sieger. Two additional songs were written by Sieger’s friend and occasional collaborator, Michael Feldman (fellow Wisconsinite and host/creator of public radio’s Whad’ya Know?)
From the opening bell clang of “Sonny Liston”, with its driving beat and clever lyrics, to the haunting dirge of “When my Angel Smiles”, this CD showcases Sieger’s exceptional song writing and the versatility of this top notch band. The spark that ignited Semi-Twang’s freshman release is still burning bright in this follow up a generation later.
With their witty lyrics and swagger, several of the cuts are reminiscent of Austin’s fabulous band The Gourds, and when Sieger’s vocals aren’t bringing to mind the rough, lovely ache you hear in Tom Petty or John Hiatt, they could be channeling Jimmy Smith. This talented band keeps it interesting with plenty of great guitar licks, some horns, dobro and banjo, too. Keeping it all moving with a steady groove is Bob Schneider’s drum work. An unexpected, but awesome, musical surprise is Sieger’s judicious use of the Celeste, a “music box”-like instrument you might recognize from the opening of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”.
The title track strikes a contemplative, wistful note. “I’m trying to hear myself above the din; I’m paying taxes on the wages of sin,” Sieger sings from the perspective of someone older, and perhaps wiser. The appropriately named “Nervous Energy” jumps and jitters you to the dance floor. The Feldman penned “I Can’t Read Your Mind”, cleverly and humorously twists a few simple phrases into catchy hooks reflecting what must surely be a universal relationship gripe. Similarly, “Your Name Was In It” wittily suggests one person’s efforts to obliterate any mention of another after a failed romance. “I threw away the phone book, but I’m glad I did it. Though I lost my head, your name was in it.”
If Salty Tears was before its time, Wages of Sin is right on time to celebrate what is truly great about the hard-to-define, but catchall genre, we call “Americana”. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years for this band’s next release.
-With permission from The Current.
* If you’re in Chicago on Wed. Dec. 28, you can catch Semi-Twang opening for alt-country punksters The Waco Brothers at Schubas Tavern. Hang around and catch Robbie Fulks’ “Year End Rap Up” at FitzGerald’s the next night!