Stews and haikus

Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

The most exciting thing about Semisonic may turn out to be not the Minneapolis trio themselves but the small flurry their single Secret Smile caused on London indie station Xfm a few months ago. A DJ invited listeners to phone in their interpretation of the title, and provoked a girl into giving him the answer he wanted: "It's a vagina, innit?"

The song itself, like the rest of the group's unaccountably best-selling output, hardly warrants such mild risqueness. That they call themselves "semi" indicates that even they feel a touch half-hearted about their music, which stirs the blandest elements of REM, Travis and Crowded House into a college-rock stew. If you wanted to be generous, you could say that their current album, Feeling Strangely Fine, showcases songwriter Dan Wilson's sensitive way with lyrics, which he describes as "haikus". If not, you'll simply wonder how such beige characters emanated from the same city that produced Prince.

Saturation airplay of Secret Smile and its follow-up, Closing Time, ensured that the first night of a brief British tour quickly sold out. And, admittedly, gigs seem to be their forte, if only because Wilson has an arid wit that keeps things rolling along and adds an extra dimension to tunes. Before launching into DND, for instance, he ran through a brief history of those Do Not Disturb signs that dangle from hotel doorknobs. It put you in a receptive mood for the delicate pastel ballad, which centred around the poignant plea "Turn off the phone, now they'll leave us alone".

Afterwards, they settled into a lengthy canter across the featureless plains of mid-tempo pop, intermittently relieved by sly patter ("This next one is dedicated to all the guys here with dates, and what happens later on - if you know what I mean, ladies") and windows of musical interest. Bassist John Munson occasionally took over lead vocals with a Springsteen-like gravitas, and on Secret Smile played bass and keyboards simultaneously. On something that may have been called Start Again, he and Wilson magicked up some natty contrapuntal harmonies, too.

Secret Smile revealed itself to be more complex than it sounds when you're yawning through its zillionth radio play. Semisonic pulled out all the stops for this centrepiece number, illuminating the stage with spheres of green and blue light and transforming the diffident little track into a fluent, glowing gem. But then - oops! - Wilson announced, "Our plan from here on in is to rock", and it was back to the faceless strumming that puts the "semi" in Semisonic.

• At Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton (01902 552121), tomorrow, then touring to Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow.

***** Unmissable **** Recommended *** Enjoyable ** Mediocre * Terrible


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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