In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about bands we thought should have been bigger than they were.
Trip Shakespeare fits the textbook definition of cult band: unsurpassed to its rabid fan base, impenetrable to the unenlightened. The band really didn’t fit the punk-rock-pop mold that brought us so many great acts from Minneapolis in the ’80s and ’90s (Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Soul Asylum); it was actually hard to fit the group into any kind of mold, which might have been its ultimate undoing.
This Minneapolis quartet—guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/brothers Dan and Matt Wilson, percussionist Elaine Harris, and bassist/vocalist John Munson—featured superhero-strong melodic three-part harmonies; odd off-kilter percussion from Harris, who preferred to play standing up; and stellar psychedelic rock odes to characters like the “Toolmaster Of Brainerd” instead of solely bitching about jobs or romance. It took a special breed of fan to embrace the unexpected musical paths the band often took, its sensibility more literary than radio-ready. The band was also known for amazing and lengthy live sets in small venues, featuring dozens of hippies yelling out “Triiiippp!” I once saw Matt Wilson launch into so many impromptu verses of “Toolmaster” at Chicago’s Cubby Bear, I outlasted almost everyone else in the room, as even diehard fans fled from exhaustion. (My then-boyfriend kept pestering me to leave; we broke up soon afterward.)
Perhaps at the dawn of the grunge era, Trip Shakespeare were just too sunny: Despite the posed seriousness of a few promo photos, the band members were always seen smiling, and never seemed happier than when they were on stage. They were as cheerful as an Up With People concert:
The band’s perfect short-story song, “Snow Days,” sums up everything that made Trip Shakespeare so special, and so non-commercial. It’s a song that could only come from a band from the Midwest, a tribute to Mrs. Braintree, a long-suffering teacher who gets a “blessing on the ground” that brings her a long-deserved day off. The slowwww track starts with piano plinks that sound like snowflakes; bassist Munson gets the lyrical leadoff as he describes the wintry scene, and the vocals build as the snow does. The song’s solo is not a guitar, but the return of the shimmery piano to the spotlight, leading to one of Matt Wilson’s trademark spoken-word segues, as he chides her, “Mrs. Braintree, you’re a chilly northern woman / Go home from yonder bus stop, because there’s a blessing on the ground.” A touch of falsetto, then the harmonizing vocals build again, celebrating the snow, the teacher, the music itself. Despite its plodding pace, it remains a riveting ode to this detail-specific winter day. It’s a song that wouldn’t fit in anywhere else, except perhaps an off-off-off-Broadway stage musical about public education: It barely fit into the band’s offbeat canon, yet it remains one of Trip Shakespeare’s best-ever creations.
Trip Shakespeare ultimately came to a familiar ’90s end: A few local releases led to a major-label signing, which led to a few more releases that went nowhere, and the band was dropped, and subsequently broke up. (I maintain 1991’s A&M release Lulu stands as a tremendously strong album, and surely if there was room in the hippified music market for absolute dreck like The Spin Doctors, couldn’t a little label grease have helped to push Lulu’s “Bachelorette” as a single?) Dan Wilson and Munson formed Semisonic and honed their songwriting into pop tunes that were more radio-ready, peaking with the ’90s anthem “Closing Time.” Dan Wilson now cowrites songs with people like Taylor Swift and Adele; Matt Wilson and Munson recently reconnected again to play as The Twilight Hours.
A few months ago, Omnivore Recordings re-released Trip Shakespeare’s first two albums, Applehead Man and Are You Shakespearienced?, in special expanded editions including digipaks and colored vinyl, each with several bonus tracks. Maybe a few decades later, interest in Trip Shakespeare will take off again; with the band’s awesome live reputation, it would no doubt clean up on a mid-sized-venue reunion tour. But when Trip Shakespeare recently reunited for the first time in 20 years to appear at a 2013 holiday show, there was only one song that could define that legendary set.