Album Review: The Twilight Hours – Stereo Night
Things could have gone so differently.
In the early 90s, rock music found itself at the latest in a long series of crossroads. There wasn’t much of lasting value happening in high-profile rock music, but as is often the case, a couple of interesting strains were bubbling under. At the time I was living in Atlanta; not the most rock-oriented of cities, but a major market nonetheless. A new station (99X) had sprung up to capitalize on these interesting subgenres; they called it “new rock”, which is of course meaningless, but we knew that it sounded different. The two strains (though, sure, there were others, and many acts wouldn’t fit nearly into these pigenonholes) were grunge and a sort of melodic rock. The former included Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Live, and was course led by Nirvana. The latter was populated by a far more interesting set of acts, including Jellyfish, Michael Penn, Gin Blossoms, Greenberry Woods…and Semisonic.
By this point in our little story, even if you didn’t follow radio rock in those days you’ll know how this story unfolded. Put simply, the former camp “won” the battle. While some of the acts in that latter list enjoyed the occasional hit, the market leaned in the direction of the harder (less melodic, less subtle, less complex, less nuanced) stuff. The commercial fortunes of the groups were tied to that development, and many of them found themselves without a label.
Semisonic was itself an outgrowth of an earlier Minneapolis band, Trip Shakespeare. Trip Shakespeare never achieved much more than a bit of success, and that was a real shame. Their heavenly harmonies proved yet again that there’s something about the blending of genetically-related voices; see The Beach Boys, Oasis, The Kinks, The Everly Brothers, The Honeys and a select list of others for proof. Brothers Matt and Dan Wilson were both possessed of beautiful, evocative voices that could convincingly convey hurt, regret, petulance, anger, joy and bliss. They wrote great, lush pop songs, adding in plenty of muscle when the songs called for it. They were joined by bassist/vocalist John Munson, who often made skillful use of fretless electric bass (one of relatively few players to do so in the rock idiom) and drummer Elaine Harris, who played standing up.
Long story short, Trip Shakespeare got dropped. Dan Wilson and Munson hooked up with a drummer (Jacob Schlichter) who also played keyboards (sometimes simultaneously) and formed Semisonic. But other than their hit “Closing Time” that group didn’t make much commercial headway either, and the members again went their separate ways.
Eventually the other Wilson (Matt) teamed up with Munson in a group wryly named The Flops. That group eventually became The Twilight Hours, which — finally — brings us to present day.
The Twilight Hours are much, much closer in sound and feel to Trip Shakespeare than Semisonic. Yes, it’s all rock, but the duo isn’t afraid to dial things down when that’s what the tune needs. The delightful and vulnerable vocals of a tune like “Goodbye Good Life” call for acoustic guitar and drums played with brushes not sticks, so that’s how they deliver it. Munson and Wilson continue the distinctive Trip approach of vocal countermelodies and apply it to sturdy pop songs. The songs on Stereo Night have a warm, familiar vibe; listeners might feel that they’re being let in on the most personal emotions of these musicians. Perhaps they are.
But it’s not an overly precious album. Yes, it does sound in many ways like it could have been recorded in 1990 or so, but this listener chooses to view that more as timeless than out-of-time. Munson’s bass playing is more melodic and a part of the songs than is typical of mainstream rock, and even though there’s plenty of electric guitar, one supposes that these songs wouldn’t sound radically different if delivered up in an Unplugged style. “Alone” is something of a cousin to “Snow Days” from Across the Universe; “My Return” — a contender for the most delightful song on the record — starts out pastoral and then builds to the soaring harmonies that made Trip Shakespeare a special band. “Queen of Tomorrow” leans a bit more in a direction that will be familiar to Semisonic fans, and shows that the storytelling prowess of these guys (see Trip Shakespeare’s “Bachelorette” or “The Slacks” for further examples) is still very much in full flower. It’s also the disc’s most commercial track. Though on that score the final cut, “Never Mine to Lose” gives it strong competition. “Never Mine to Lose” is a romantic song with a brief, soaring and emotion-filled electric guitar solo; the song’s arrangement show that the Twilight Hours know how to use dynamics in a pop song. In a just world, this would be played on a new rock radio station — if such things existed — near you.
Subtle flourishes of pedal steel guitar, acoustic piano, autoharp and something that sounds like a pennywhistle all add to the album’s texture, and are always always — as I like to say whenever it applies — in service of the song. Stereo Night is yet another in that list of excellent albums that will wear well and bring happiness to listeners, yet it’s likely not destined for major high-profile commercial fortunes. With that reality in mind, the Twilight Hours has made Stereo Night available in a number of formats: low-res MP3 (for free, though a donation is accepted and is only fair), better-resolution MP3, good-old CD and better-older translucent red vinyl. At press time a handful of live dates were scheduled; this writer fervently hopes that The Twilight Hours will enjoy enough success to make a more extensive tour a possibility.
Postscript: those who enjoy clever and amusing writing (and this writer would like to think that has at least something to do with your presence on this page, gentle reader) would do well to visit The Twilight Hours’ web site (www.thetwilighthours.com).