BY MICHAEL TOLAND
One of the many never-was stories of the late ‘80s college rock underground, Trip Shakespeare may be best known these days as the launching pad for Dan Wilson and John Munson of Semisonic. As with so many of these cases, though, the Minneapolis band deserves more than footnote status to an alt.rock one-hit-wonder, as these reissues of the band’s first two albums prove.
Originally released in 1986, Applehead Man debuts a fresh, exciting young trio playing power pop with enough distinctive personality to keep it from sounding like the millions of other popsters invading the record racks. Leader Matt Wilson (brother Dan was not yet a member) is an irrepressibly melodic tunesmith, with a seemingly bottomless bag of appealing songs that boast quirky lyrics that wander far from the usual clichés. The band weaves Wilson’s skillful but unflashy guitar figures and mellifluous tenor into a glistening web with Munson’s fretless bass and fruity harmonies and Elaine Harris’ rock-solid kit work, stumbling on its unique sound immediately. Trip Shakespeare scatters tuneful gems with seemingly little effort, including the gleaming “Rose” and “Pearle” (the world’s most upbeat murder ballad, later remade for the band’s major label debut Across the Universe), the moodier but still ultra-melodic “Stop the Winter” and “Highway in the Sun” and the psychedelic pastiche “Beatle.” The Omnivore edition adds seven bonus tracks of equal instant appeal – only the limitations of vinyl sides could account for the omission of “Fall,” “Patricia” (later included on the band’s swansong Lulu) and “Freedom Bird.”
1988’s Are You Shakespearienced? saw the addition of Matt’s brother Dan as co-writer, guitarist and pianist, and an expansion of the combo’s already-trademarked style. For example, the band expands its reach with more sophisticated and rock-oriented arrangements in “Thief” and “The Lake,” essays a Talking Heads-like groove and some jazzy instrumental work in “Vines” and successfully incorporates funk into “Swing.” The fan favorite “Toolmaster of Brainerd” pays cheeky tribute to a fictional rock god (“He played guitar like a master, but faster”), while “Spirit” digs into metaphysical passion in the form of a moving ballad. The Tripsters make good use of their musicianly prowess with close interplay that avoids showboating, while Dan’s addition gives the band extra vocal power – Munson and the Wilson brothers intertwine and bounce off each other in a veritable orgy of playful harmonies. While not as instantly winning as Applehead Man, Are You Shakespearienced? is an ambitious effort that serves notice that Trip Shakespeare wouldn’t simply rely on its easy appeal. This edition includes a full nine bonus tracks, from tunes that made onto later records (“Bachelorette,” “Snow Days”) to a passel of quality outtakes that range all over the map – cf. the pretty “Look at the Lady,” the soulful “10,000 Watt Searching Light,” the folk-rocking “Stories End” and the weirdly War-like “Car.”
The band would go on to record a pair of well-liked but poor-selling major label records and one covers EP before disbanding. Munson and Dan Wilson went on to form the briefly popular Semisonic, before Dan moved to co-writing bestselling records for the Dixie Chicks and Adele. Munson and Matt Wilson, one of the most underappreciated talents in alternative rock, formed the Twilight Hours. As these records prove, Trip Shakespeare owns a proud legacy.
DOWNLOAD: “Rose,” “Highway in the Sun,” “Toolmaster of Brainerd,” “Spirit”