You know your band is solid when one member can tell another that their guitar part in a new song isn't so hot.
That's how one of Minnesota's all-time greatest rock bands wound up having a special guest deliver a wicked solo on its first album in 22 years. That's also indicative of the brotherly closeness that has kept Semisonic together as a band over the past two decades — despite its members now living thousands of miles apart with lots of other things to do besides playing with their old group.
"Getting the three of us in one place was the great challenge of this record," singer/guitarist Dan Wilson said as bassist John Munson and drummer Jacob Slichter looked on.
"John says, 'I'm available anytime,' but in truth he always has gigs because he loves to play. Jake is a professor, so obviously he can't just up and leave. And I got a lot of stuff going on, too."
Wilson's other "stuff" includes co-writing songs behind the scenes with such top-tier hitmakers as Adele, Taylor Swift, the Chicks and — just among 2023 releases — Chris Stapleton, Celine Dion and Jon Batiste.
When he and his bandmates of 1998's "Closing Time" platinum-selling fame finally got around to recording "Little Bit of Sun," their LP due out Friday, Wilson and Munson wound up with different opinions on one of the standout tracks, "Out of the Dirt."
"I don't want to put words in John's mouth," Wilson said with a smiling bite, "but basically he made it known that the guitar parts I had laid down were annoying."
Munson kindly interjected, "It just needed something different."
That something different proved to be Jason Isbell, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter who is also known as an ace guitarist. One of a handful of outsiders enlisted to help the close-knit band complete its new record, Isbell reinvented the guitar solo in the one song as Semisonic hit restart with all 12 songs on "Little Bit of Sun."
The album comes relatively close on the heels of the 2020 EP "You're Not Alone," which ended Semisonic's two-decade recording hiatus by delivering a compact five-song batch of classic Semisonic songs: upbeat, tightly spun, richly melodic power-pop fueled by the joy of the band members finally recording again for the first time since their 2001 album "All About Chemistry."
"Little Bit of Sun" is a bit different, though. There's still plenty of the punchy, melodic Semisonic pop of old (best example: "The Rope"). But it's much more sonically varied than the EP or any other of the band's releases, with traces of classic Los Angeles pop (the Munson-sung "If You Say So"), Iron & Wine-like indie-folky balladry ("Don't Fade Away," "Only Empathy") and a potent spike of Tom Petty-style Americana rock ("Out of the Dirt" and "Grow Your Own").
The wider array of sounds came with the confidence boost the old bandmates got off the warm reception for the "You're Not Alone" EP.
"That EP proved to me I could still do it, and we could still do it," Munson said. "It gave us more intention to this second round of recording, and more openness to the wealth of material that Dan brought in."
"We were more open to playing around," Wilson said. "Instead of having a set idea in our mind of what a certain song should sound like and trying to make it fit that box, we went more with the flow of what it sounded like as we were playing it."
Much of the recording was done over four different sessions in Minneapolis at Creation Audio, the Nicollet Avenue facility that hosted the Trashmen as Kay Bank Studios in the '60s.
The earliest sessions were supposed to be tied to Semisonic's return to the stage at First Avenue in September 2021, but those shows got canceled by COVID-19's Delta wave.
"I thought: Are we just going to wait like two years to play our new songs for people?" Wilson recalled. "That didn't seem very exciting to me to have to wait. So I started writing even more songs to have ready to go whenever we could play again."
But it's not really a "pandemic record" thematically, he said. A lot of the songs look back nostalgically on their younger days, including "If You Say So" and "Grow Your Own" — the latter inspired by Wilson's first forays into music with Trip Shakespeare (featuring Munson and Dan's brother Matt Wilson).
"It's about that time when you turn 20 or so and are complaining about everybody else's band, and realize you just have to start your own," Wilson explained.
As nostalgic as they are, the songs on "Little Bit of Sun" also sound right in the moment in 2023, capturing what sounds like post-pandemic optimism and deeper appreciation for the good things.
Slichter actually countered Wilson's claim that it's not a record inspired by the pandemic, citing the warm title track that opens the album.
"It's impossible for me to hear 'Little Bit of Sun' without the context of being stuck inside," said the drummer, who co-wrote another new track ("Keep Me in Motion") with Wilson.
"I used to say Dan's songwriting was like 10 years ahead of the curve culturally," Slichter continued, "and now it's like 18 months ahead. So by the time we go through our slow Semisonic process, it's like he knows exactly where we'll be when the songs come out."
"Little Bit of Sun" is one of three tracks Wilson wrote with a frequent songwriting collaborator, Amy Allen. He co-wrote other songs with Munson, Boston folkie Lori McKenna and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James.
"I think with all the songs, I wanted some kind of consolation," Wilson said, "something that made me feel the music had a deeper purpose. 'Don't Fade Away' is a good example. It's about being utterly in the present moment and drinking up that experience."
You can imagine how much consolation was felt, then, when Semisonic finally got to perform again in 2023.
The trio started with a trio of Minneapolis shows at Icehouse and First Avenue this past January. Those prefaced a '90s-nostalgia package tour this summer with Barenaked Ladies and Del Amitri — Semisonic's first real tour in more than 20 years, though the band did play sporadic gigs in the interim and never truly went on hiatus.
"It was so incredibly fun and rewarding," Munson said of the trek. The bassist has remained a mainstay in the Twin Cities live music scene, playing with the New Standards, Munson-Hicks Party Supplies, Lucy Michelle and many more.
"It wasn't just that we were doing it again, but doing it knowing we had this new record in our back pocket, and having some of those songs to play. That made it all the more exciting."
Wilson, who now lives in Los Angeles, was supposed to return to Minneapolis this weekend for a pair of hometown solo shows at the Woman's Club, but those had to be postponed until February for personal reasons. However, he remains firmly committed to returning to the road with Semisonic next year.
For proof, Wilson recounted an exchange he had with his bandmates when they played the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver in June with BNL.
"We had played Red Rocks 22 years before, but somehow I didn't notice how cool it was, how beautiful," he said. "I was so intent on moving our band forward, wondering if our new song was getting played on the radio in Omaha and whatnot.
"This time around, I got up on stage and was just stunned — stunned by how I could've missed it the first time, but also stunned by the fact that I was lucky enough to have the chance to do it again and fully appreciate it."
Sounds like there's going to be a lot of that going around this time around for Semisonic.