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Album Review: Semi-Twang "The Why And What For"
Veteran Milwaukee band is at its best 25 years after debut

Photo by Deone Jahnke

Today, in the age of EPs and self-recorded albums being released at an almost stream-of-consciousness pace, a band can churn out its first three releases in two or three years, no sweat. For seasoned Milwaukee outfit Semi-Twang, its third album took a tad longer than the glut of its 2013 contemporaries – a quarter century, to be exact.

In 1988, Semi-Twang caught a big break when Warner Bros. records inked the band to a deal and released its debut album, Salty Tears. However, abysmal sales figures found Semi-Twang dropped from the major label’s roster by 1989 and broken up shortly thereafter. Before Semi-Twang called it quits, though, they played Shank Hall’s first show in ’89, later prompting the band to reunite after playing the venue’s 20th anniversary show in 2009.

Since the fateful reunion, the sextuplet has managed two albums, 2011’s Wages Of Sin and the forthcoming The Why And What For. The latest effort is a soulful and stylistically meandering display, showing that these old dogs are capable of learning some new tricks.

Right out of the gate, jangling piano and saxophone – a Semi-Twang rarity – emphatically welcomes listeners in opener “The Wrong Side of the Tracks” as frontman John Sieger channels The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson with a bending, burly howl (a common theme in most of the album’s early-going). Once the toe-tapping tone is established with “…Tracks” and songs like “52 Jokers” and Creole-inspired number “Au Contraire,” the rug of rambunctiousness is pulled out, revealing a handful of heartfelt numbers, including stripped-down “The More She Gets The More She Wants,” the understated “Making Everybody Cry” and downright sappy “A Handsome Man.”

But Semi-Twang is at its best with a canvas that’s conducive to vibrant instrumental strokes and melodies that sneak into the subconscious. In tracks like “Dark Out” (which features vocal assistance from The Delta Routine’s Nick Amadeus) and should-be dive bar last call soundtrack “You Love Everybody,” billowing horns, the sharp pangs of lap steel and well-placed harmonies show an experienced-yet-adaptive band that can both nod to rock ‘n’ roll mainstays like Chuck Berry and Tom Petty while managing to hold on to some modern day appeal.

Though ’80s band reunions – oftentimes with the original keyboard player and a bunch of enlisted younger musicians vying for casino theater and county fair cash grabs – can be tiresome, Semi-Twang’s reprise is effective because its shows the band exploring different sonic landscapes instead of hitching its once-Warner Bros.-caliber wagon to the familiar. And if The Why And What For is any indication, it’s working.

Semi-Twang will release The Why And What For at – where else – Shank Hall Saturday, March 23. Greg Koch, and Micah Olsan and The OCD Big Band are also playing. The show begins at 8 p.m. and costs $15.


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