BY MARY LEARY
The only problem I have with The Why and the What For? My birthday isn’t until July. Yet I seem to have received a present four months early; from a group I’d never heard of. Actually, there’s another problem: that “never heard of” business.
When Warner Brothers released Semi-Twang’s debut, Salty Tears, in 1988, album sales were disappointing. The Milwaukee-based band’s members drifted apart; their respective talents rapidly requisitioned by others, including Dwight Yoakam, who was taken with lead singer/songwriter John Sieger’s compositions. The band was revitalized by an invitation to remount the stage of Shank Hall for its 20th anniversary in 2009. The Why and the What For is the second full-length product of Semi-Twang’s reunion, and my introduction to an exemplary roots-based/referencing band.
Sieger’s warm, slightly husky tenor recalls vocals by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Mick Jagger. His pinpoint phrasing and stylistic tweaks are underscored by immediate instrumentation. But Semi-Twang’s ultimate ace, and the reason it should continue to play until its members die, is Sieger’s songs, three of which were co-written with Michael Feldman. His melodies are uncommonly engaging; incorporating his experience of several genres in addition to roots music. The verses leading into those melodic refrains could be taught in a master class on ways to mount a chorus with the subtle differentiations that keep things fresh. Semi-Twang takes those songs to places that are accomplished, convincing, and timeless enough to bring the Band, Wings, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers into the conversation.
I could go on about Bob Jennings’ “Jack in the Box piano,” or the way his and Mike Hoffman’s keyboards replicate acoustic folk and country sounds. Or about the duckwalk-impelling guitar strokes that chase boogie woogie keyboards on opener “The Wrong Side of the Tracks,” which hints at Semi-Twang’s fondness for gumbo, injecting the subtle spicing that can happen when musicians have integrated American musical roots deeply enough to reference them on a rusty dime. While the instrumentation’s uniformly, creatively present, the vibrant synchronicity of Semi-Twang’s fret work demands special mention (four members contribute electric, pedal steel, and/or acoustic guitar, and Mike Sieger’s bass playing is no slouch).
Whether by Mike Hoffmann, Jason Klagstad, or John Sieger, string manipulation is appealingly nuanced; recalling that of Mike Campbell, and Henry McCullough. It especially impacts a powerful ballad, “The More She Gets The More She Wants;” a steaming, slide-laced choogler, “Contents Under Pressure,” and a bright splicing of country, rock, and pop called “Love Interest.” It lubricates a throwback to the goofy libidinous joy NRBQ emoted circa Scraps, “Miss Watson,” with crazy-tasty pedal steel playing. And it’s integral to a mid-tempo heartstring-puller, “Making Everybody Cry.”
Semi-Twang exemplifies the mix of easy facility with experience that veteran players can bring onstage. Guys who are more seasoned can charm a woman with a few words. A knack for folding audiences into a band’s mutual hands becomes a sort of second nature.
DOWNLOAD: The entire album.