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It used to be that guitar-obsessed indie-pop bands were a dime a dozen. Now you can get ’em for about a nickel, thanks mainly to the cresting (new) wave of post-rock, whose practitioners, depending on whom you talk to, either got bored with guitars or figured out that synthesizers are easier to play. From Dusseldorf to Des Moines, these days your average bunch of up-and-coming young hipsters is far more likely to cite Kraftwerk or Gary Numan as an influence than the Velvet Underground or Big Star. In the meantime, backward-looking indie aesthetes such as Pedro the Lion and Death Cab for Cutie scratch their collective head and ask, “Didn’t we go through this already with Kajagoogoo?”
Add Minnesota’s Sean Na Na to the list of recent guitar-pop befuddleds. Antiquated at birth, largely neglected by a rock press whose column inches might redeem a microscopic fan base, and rejected, apparently, by about a million girls, Sean Tillmann (aka Sean Na Na) is one tunefully bitter pop rocker.
Sean Na Na debuted in 1995 but didn’t find his voice until early 2000, on a Kill Rock Stars EP split between his songs and those of cuddly cute pop commodity Mary Lou Lord. Turned out, though, that Lord was just another girl who got the better of Tillmann. Trading on her breathy coo of a voice—not to mention ace tunes by Nick Saloman and Lucinda Williams—Lord launches her three tracks into a fine pop orbit. When Tillmann steps up to the mike, however, the proceedings promptly return to earth—or even below it. On “Princess and the Pony,” Tillmann fantasizes about his funeral party and tells a cryptic story about his life as a manservant to an abusive, drug-addicted girlfriend. Cutting right to the pathetic chase, the track’s main refrain is “Shake your ass around my casket.” Still, when the lush backing vocals kick in—harmoniously repeating the phrase “around my casket,” no less—you realize there’s no amount of self-pity that can’t be improved with just a little internal rhyme and a propulsive rhythm attack. Really, the man is like an Americanized, heterosexual version of Morrissey. Fifteen minutes with you? Tillmann wouldn’t say no. But he’d almost certainly regret it in song later.
Unlike the former Smiths frontman, however, Sean Na Na doesn’t sing like Dudley Do-Right. He’s got a rangy, raspy tenor and, if his press bios are to be believed, he’s even been “classically trained” (whatever that means). And though it’s true that Tillmann’s chosen lame joke of a moniker is enough to give self-flagellation a bad name, it’s also true that he displays a sadistic streak more frequently than a masochistic one. At times, he even comes on like an indie-pop version of Eminem. Consider “Gray Clouds,” a caustic little ditty from 2000’s Dance ‘Til Your Baby Is a Man, on which Tillmann coughs up this rough-cut gem: “What’s this?/The wind is working with me as I smoke/I hope a stray cinder burns through your face/To your stupid cheekbone.” Ouch.
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Sean Na Na’s dark pop fantasy continues on his latest work of misanthropy, My Majesty, which is motivated, Elvis Costello-like, mostly by revenge and guilt. Not Tillmann’s guilt, though. No, this thing is all about the guilt of people who have betrayed him. On the soaring anti-anthem “Give Me a B-Side,” Tillmann’s bandmates—guitarist Nathan Grumdhal, keyboardist Lucky Jeremy, bassist St. Patrick, and co-producer/drummer (and all-round Twin Cities scenester) Bryan Hanna—bash and pop ferociously while their leader waxes mordant one more time. “I’m in a coffin/I’m in a cave” are the track’s first lines; “I’ve been crying over something/
That’s not you” are the last. In between is all manner of ill will, including, among other things, a bruised body, a disease that sickens but won’t kill, and an eggless Easter bunny who apparently performs an amputation.
Things are even weirder—and darker—on “Double Date,” the LP’s bad-mood-setting opener. With the band kicking up another can’t-miss din of jangling, three-chord pop-rock, Tillmann takes his “last shot at rejection” and, in a development that should surprise no one, is immediately blown off: “Honestly,” says his love disinterest, “you thought that you could get with me?” Beer bottle in hand, Tillmann hails a cab whose driver tells him a story about a crew of “drunken wrecks/Who needed a one-day test/To check if they got burned by backstage sex.” Which leads Tillmann to wonder if maybe that episode involved the same girl who just let him down hard. “God I hope so,” goes the song’s creepy coda. “Oh, God, I hope so.”
After that, when Tillmann confesses on the plodding Matthew Sweet knockoff “Big Trouble” that his “hate is an easy thing to cultivate,” the only proper response is: Well, duh. So don’t get taken in by the easy hooks and Beatlesque psychedelia of “Grew Into My Body,” which is actually a mistreated-in-junior-high lament wherein Tillmann brags that he’s “Gettin’ more play than all the pretty boys did back at an age when they couldn’t use it.” And definitely don’t fall for the melancholy chord he strikes on the pretty piano ballad “I Need a Girl.” Though Tillmann does uncork the record’s sweetest, clumsiest line—”I need a New Wave girl to dance with me/And curl up on the couch while I pull DJ duty”—he also pines for a sugar mommy, a live-in nurse, and a “sexy shrink like I see on TV/To fix my head, let her hair down and give it to me.”
Schmuck though he is, when Tillmann writes catchy, he makes you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. When he doesn’t, though, he just makes you want to doubt him. The hard-rockist “Surrender Foreign Lizzy,” for instance, struts around like B-grade Bad Company and features eighth-grade lyrics that sound as though Tillmann has been spending a little too much time inside bathroom stalls: “All you ever wanted was one hard, young, willing cock/To clear your cloudy little mind for 15 minutes each day after work,” he seethes, ridiculously. And the disc’s musical nadir is “I Hate Saxophones,” a hook-free rant that’s either about an instrument Tillmann has heard enough of or a rival in a band who (surprise, surprise) stole his girlfriend. With Lucky Jeremy doing his best to punctuate the track’s clunky chord changes with splashes of Steve Nieve-style organ, Tillman takes aim at a certain scene-making reed player: “Somewhere there’s a crowd who’d appreciate/The vulgar, rude, and grating noise you make.” And who’s to argue? If anyone knows about rude and vulgar, it’s Sean Na Na.
Still, from Robert Browning to Eminem, all provocative gangstas who work the dramatic-monologue angle eventually make you wonder if maybe the joke’s on you. Cartoonish misogyny generally offends in inverse proportion to its bluesiness and/or goofiness. Committed power-popper Tillmann can’t use the blues as an excuse, but he’s definitely a certifiable goof: My Majesty’s album art features long-haired Tillmann triumphant on horseback, plaid shirt unbuttoned a little too far and looking suspiciously like Tiny Tim. And on the disc’s best songs, he successfully cultivates a caustic alter ego who just happens to have a soft spot for pop hooks and sweet harmonies. Other times, though, he sounds like a sad-sack loser with a mean streak who can be pretty damn stingy with the catchy parts. Sure, I know which one I’m pulling for, but will the real Sean Tillmann please stand up? CP