Saturday, July 17, 2010

Grunge Kills Semantics

Or, why music in the 90s sucked, part 817

Hoping to follow in the footsteps of artists like Let's Active and Matthew Sweet (both of whom were inches away from superstardom), Will Owsley formed a powerpop band in Nashville with songwriter Millard Powers.

The band, who called themselves the Semantics, got signed to Geffen Records and spent years recording their first album with legendary producer Peter Asher. The band initially featured Ben Folds on drums, but he left to form his own band and was replaced by Zak Starkey, son of one Ringo Starr.

Power Pop nirvana, right? What could possibly go wrong? (Link for Gmail subscribers)

Well, Nirvana could go wrong. And did.

And the groundswell of grunge reared its head and crushed all the pop it could find.

Flannel and noise were in. Harmonies and jangly guitars were out.

By the time the band turned in their first (and only) album Powerbill, Geffen had lost interest. They dithered and eventually passed on the album.

So the band broke up. Amy Grant heard the album and hired Owsley to play in her touring band. He'd release a terrific solo album a few years later (coproduced by Millard Powers) and record and tour for years with Amy Grant and Shania Twain.

The Semantics record finally came out in 1996 in Japan, where it sold 20,000 copies with no promotion whatsoever.

Grunge would soon be over too -- but by then it was too late for the Semantics. The band was over and done with.

But at least they left behind some amazing music -- and an album that should've been a huge hit if record companies weren't tripping over themselves to chase the next big thing up to Seattle.

In a sad postscript, Owsley died a few months ago at age 44, an apparent suicide.



asiangrrl said...

You know one thing I really appreciate about your blog? I discover many new cool bands I had never heard of before. Sad about Owsley, though.

Holly A Hughes said...

I just heard Owsley's solo album after the news of his death -- it is totally wonderful. Now I find out from you about this earlier band, and I HAVE to check them out.

Grunge had a lethal effect on the music of the 90s, it's true, at least in the US. On the other hand there were so many bad music trends in the 80s -- a total housecleaning was long overdue!

David S said...

Owsley sure could play. I heard his solo album when it came out and kept wondering when the next would follow...

At least Canada's Sloan survived the grunge years. They cleverly produced their first hit ("Underwhelmed") with a fuzzy sheen to blend in with the crowd, then when the coast was clear a few years later, they went all jangly/wonderful.