An aural oasis

If you buy books based on whether the first paragraph is any good, be prepared to use the same technique on Semisonic’s All About Chemistry.

The album’s opening track, “Chemistry”, is just one of 12 likeable-if-not-insanely-catchy tunes. Semisonic, the Minneapolis trio who scored a hit in 1998 with “Closing Time,” have returned with 70s rock channeled through 90s alt-rock.

It’s been a long time since anyone dared to use keyboards the way Semisonic does on this album.

From plaintive piano ballads as “Act Naturally” to the bouncy electric p’s on “Who’s Stopping You?”, the band pretty much shies away from the alt-rock gesturing that made “Closing Time” a blip on the proverbial pop music radar.

And it’s actually pretty refreshing.

So is the band’s songwriting. Although compared — somewhat sneeringly — to Crowded House, Dan Wilson and company do a mighty fine job of coming up with hummable songs and lyrics that can be humorous and/or bittersweet.

“Chemistry” talks about love without ever using the word “love” and still manages to hit the core of the topic. “And we found out that the two things we put together had a bad tendency to explode,” Wilson sings.

On “Bed,” Wilson takes the perspective of a frustrated lover. “If you feel like I’m asking for far too much/We can keep in touch/And I’ll find someone else to bed,” he sings somewhat chirpily.

“Act Naturally,” on the other hand, drowns in sentimentality that either comes across as crass or endearing, depending on whether Chris DeBurgh’s “Lady in Red” still makes you cringe. (I actually like it. “Act Naturally”, not “Lady in Red”)

“I Wish” sports a sweeping, dramatic instrumental conclusion that just borders on being overly long. “Sunshine and Chocolate” sounds as sunny as the title suggests.

Wilson’s croon makes for a nice break from all the frat-boy frontmen and Eddie Vedder clones running amok in mainstream rock. He sounds like the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne if only Coyne could hold a note.

If anything, All About Chemistry is nice oasis of an album, an aural retreat where the only thing that matters is a good tune.