We live in America, where all sorts of miscreants and rapscallions run free. Religious mountebanks walk unchallenged on the streets of our major cities; newspaper editors are unlicensed and in some cases allowed to raise children; and it’s possible for publicists, many lawyers, and Paula Abdul to go through life and never be gifted with a pie in the face.

So cut Trip Shakespeare some slack. Yes, the Minneapolis foursome are moonchildren, and moonchildren on a level rock and roll hasn’t seen since Donovan got his first whiff of patchouli, but with so many other cultural criminals on the loose, why pick on them? Trip Shakespeare is three guys and a girl who traffic in an unapologetically 60s form of art pop (Pet Sounds meets Fairport Convention, with the Association on vocals) and promulgate a capital-R Romantic worldview spiced with a daisy-chain, prepunk optimism (Donovan meets Paul McCartney, with Up With People providing the political analysis). And their vocal attack–the three guys–may be said to be unsubtle. But Trip Shakespeare has a couple of unlikely heroes: a guitarist named Matt Wilson so unabashedly lyrical that his guitar lines stay in your head long after you ask them, politely, to leave. And a drummer named Elaine Harris who keeps forgetting that she’s not in Talking Heads. Plus there’s John Munson, a bassist whose operatic singing gets out of control at times but who’s kind of likable anyway; and guitarist and keyboardist Dan Wilson, Matt’s older brother, who adds to the whole operation what little sense and maturity it has.

The younger Wilson writes the lyrics, cowrites the music with his bro, and seems to be the moonchild in charge of concept. He’s uncritical of other bands, being uncritical of everything, but is extremely frank about Trip’s against-the-current positivity. “There’s no irony in what we do. We’re trying to find something gorgeous,” he says, unironically. He’s sitting with bassist Munson in the Wrigleyville Tap during a recent visit to Chicago. As if by design, “Sloop John B” gets spit up by the jukebox. “If you hear us harmonizing, even if we’re failing, we’re not setting up a net for ourselves that says ‘We don’t care.’ We do care.”

The brothers Wilson, Munson, and drummer Harris take their band very seriously. The younger Wilson met Harris in Boston–he drummed as well, and they met in a band (the Cratchit Family) that consisted of three drummers. He dragged her back to Minneapolis where they hooked up with bassist Munson, a longtime friend of his. The three recorded Trip’s first record, Applehead Man, an almost unlistenable excursion into overearnest art rock–it’s really hard to classify, but it’s something like early demos from Lake and Palmer (before they met Emerson). Wilson spent a long time convincing brother Dan, safely ensconced as a painter in San Francisco, that the band was going places but needed his help. “We sent him the first record,” says Matt, “almost as a demo tape, to get him to join up, and kept telling him how serious we were.”

With Dan, the group recorded Are You Shakespearienced?, the first example of the band’s precipitous growth: melodically it’s occasionally arresting–there are nice riffs and hooks on “Toolmaster” and “Two Wheeler, Four Wheeler” and a pretty bridge on “Spirit.” But the production was about 20 years out of time, and the younger Wilson’s lyrical concerns were beginning to get worrisome–they seemed to be fast developing into an almost painful olio of Renaissance Faire flourishes, portentous apostrophes, and low-budget Keatsianisms (“Swing! She ring rattles in a randy way”).

But the group’s third record, Across the Universe, changed all that, or at least a lot of it. While jarringly anachronistic in many of its lyrical themes (and some musical ones), the record makes use of an oft-forgotten rock ‘n’ roll axiom, namely that they with the most melodies get paid. Immensely listenable and hugely melodic, the record is another great leap forward for the band. You find yourself doing things you never thought you’d do–like singing along to a song called “Turtledove”–and you marvel at the sounds the voices of the three male singers make, particularly during the epiphanical kick of “Gone, Gone, Gone.” (Sometimes you cringe at the sounds the three singers make as well, but that’s Trip Shakespeare.) Plus you get Wilson’s gently self-mocking “Drummer Like Me.” Someone said apropos of Carly Simon that she was a living testament to the music’s democratic underpinnings: even rich people could make great rock ‘n’ roll. Trip Shakespeare proves that moonchildren can too.

Wilson and Munson talk about their own band with an almost devout reverence and utter sincerity. “We’ve never been about finger technique or fireworks at all,” says Wilson. “It’s like baby steps, with the threat of falling down coming at any moment.”

“But the joy of singing together is the thing that keeps us coming back. To us it’s something that we have to do because it makes us happy,” adds Munson.

“When we’re really bellowing at the end of a song,” Wilson goes on, “there’s just a beautiful sense of flying toward something and you don’t care what it is; it could be that you’re flying toward your death or just an unknown life, but we just surrender to it.”

And about that name–Trip Shakespeare? Wilson struggles for words. “Our band,” he says gravely, “we want to be great. Even if we never are. Anyone can judge us”–here he glances at his interviewer, whom he has already taken to task for calling the group’s second album “dopey and overwrought” in print–“and it’s not too hard to see that we’re not great yet. But that’s what we want to try to be: world-ending, timeless, great. And to have the name of a genius hang over your head all the time, it reminds us. Reminds us that the point isn’t to get up some stupid chart. The point is to make something that’s beautiful.”

Though largely unknown outside the midwest despite their major-label deal with A & M, the band has a fanatical following in Chicago–a few months ago, they sold nearly a thousand tickets at Cabaret Metro. They play there again tonight (3730 N. Clark), at an early, 7:30 show. Sunday Punch opens. Tickets cost $12.50; call 549-0203 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Corrigan.