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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

No More Salty Tears

Semi-Twang is better the second time around

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Nothing is forever in rock anymore, least of all breakups. Whether local heroes or global superstars, defunct bands regroup nowadays with alarming regularity. Many of them downright suck; many more reemerge as mere outlines of their own past, but without substance. Rare is the band that actually improves after years of absence, but Semi-Twang certainly falls into this category.

At the end of the ’80s, the decade when The Violent Femmes and The BoDeans inked deals with major record companies, Semi-Twang was going to be Milwaukee’s next big thing. Signed by Warner Brothers, Semi-Twang spent lots of time (and money) on their debut LP, Salty Tears (1988). Dropped by the label within a year, Semi-Twang was the canary in the industry coalmine—a warning of things to come. By the end of the ’80s, major record companies had decided to trade the concept of career development for fast returns on their investment. “We were in the big machine and got spit out of the other side,” says guitarist and vocalist Mike Hoffmann of Semi-Twang’s demise in the aftermath. “We were considered damaged goods.”

The band’s members recall the time with good humor. “The label spent wildly in the studio—we had three producers—and spent minimally on promotion,” Hoffmann continues. “We were on tour in British Columbia and the local Warner rep said, ‘You guys are great. Are you on a label?’”

“It’s easier to enjoy the music now,” says guitaristt and vocalist John Sieger. “I didn’t enjoy all the pressure of trying to sound like the record. I’m happy to be concentrating on making the music satisfying.”

Semi-Twang played Shank Hall on its opening night in 1989, and when the club’s owner asked them to regroup for Shank’s 20th anniversary, they agreed—and liked what they heard. “It didn’t feel strange,” Sieger says. “We just played the songs and remembered their feel. We had chemistry then and we still have it.”

That chemistry resulted in part from the early, pre-Twang experiences of band members who worked the tough, old-time club circuit of the Upper Midwest with five sets a night in dive bars for crowds demanding a steady beat. It was the trail that led Cheap Trick from Rockford to the Budokan, but left most acts spinning their tires in an endless circle.

Semi-Twang’s new second post-reunion album, The Why and the What For, travels ground similar to its predecessor, Wages of Sin. The prolific Sieger wrote 12 of the songs (three with Michael “Whad’ya Know?” Feldman); most are recent, but a few, including “Love Interest” and “Foghorn,” might be familiar to Semi-Twang fans from the ’80s. The musicians sound in command of their material; solos by lead guitarist Jason Klagstad are short and scorching; and the range is wide and full. “Wrong Side of the Tracks,” inspired by the upheaval against Scott Walker, is high-stepping New Orleans rock ’n’ roll; “52 Jokers” is country-rock with the accent on the rock; and the playful “Au Contraire” places Dylan in Cajun country. Joining Hoffmann, Sieger and Klagstad are original band members Bob Jennings on keyboards and sax and Bob Schneider on drums.

“I like to keep it as spontaneous as possible,” Sieger says. “Don’t learn it too good! The more you fuss over things, the worse it gets. You have a million choices nowadays and you can go down a million blind alleys.”

The recording process is deliberately old school and the music thoroughly grounded in Americana roots, but Semi-Twang perceives some advantages in the current state of music, where self-reliance is essential, audiences can be found online and stardom is for Brad and Angelina. No one dreams of going platinum. “I don’t want to be like Michael Jackson with gold bathroom fixtures,” Hoffmann says. “I just want to be in the rock ’n’ roll middle class. You’re always trying to hit a target. We’re shooting for middle class.”

Semi-Twang performs at Shank Hall on Saturday, March 23, with openers Micah Olsan and the OCD Big Band.