I Like the Spite In You

On his new album, Sean Na Na has meanness to spare

Sean Tillmann is such a cuddly ball of a fellow, from the scraggly bristle of his ever-lengthening hair to his pink Shaggs tee to the way his ready giggle expands an initial yeahinto increasingly animated hehs. Tillmann sits across from me in a St. Paul Thai restaurant, alongside roommate and musical collaborator Lucky Jeremy, who has known Tillmann since high school and serves as a perfect foil to his more effusive pal. Taciturn and deadpan, Jeremy is equally opinionated on the slick charms of contemporary Aerosmith ("I think they got really great in the Nineties") or the subject of Japan, where the two have been touring with Har Mar Superstar ("It looks just like Pokémon."). You'd never suspect what caustic music they make together as Sean Na Na.

Sean Na Na's second full-length, My Majesty (Frenchkiss), takes place in a world outwardly familiar to anyone who has ever been part of a small, catty music scene. (Sean Na Na plays for this public Friday, February 8 at a CD-release party in the Turf Club.) But the protective buffers of polite convention have been lowered and the snide put-downs usually muttered out of earshot are now the center of discussion. Even "Big Trouble," which begins as a blast of empathy to suicidal outcasts, ends with an ominous "If I don't talk to you don't talk about me/My hate is an easy thing to cultivate." And "Surrender Foreign Lizzy" calls emo boys on their passive-aggressive methods of flirtation. "All those little diary guys with their doughy, doe-y eyes," Tillmann tells a woman, "are programming their radio shows like a mix tape for your thighs."

On songs like these, Tillmann's voice--occasionally weedy and pinched in the past--achieves a kind of Dio mewl. "I've been told by a couple people that I sound like the dude from Firehouse," Tillmann says. "Which I took as a compliment. Don't know if I was supposed to."

Previously, the fragility of Tillmann's semi-acoustic song-sketches kept his yowl in check. Here, the added punch of a full band propels his vocals upward. On My Majesty, Tillmann and Jeremy are joined by several Twin Cities notables, including Dillinger Four's St. Patrick, Selby Tigers' Nate Grumdahl, and ubiquitous producer Bryan Hanna, who also drums. (Indeed, Tillmann has a knack for drawing talented and well-connected musicians into his orbit. Even as Sean Na Na tours with punk revivalists du jour the Strokes, Tillmann is assembling "a Ronettes, Phil Spector sort of girl group," and planning a project with members of Japanese noisemakers Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her.)

"This is the first record I know is good," Tillmann explains, "You know, like a real album album. Instead of 'Here's the demos--couldn't afford to make it sound any better. Just imagine how good this is gonna sound live.'"

Driven by the tautened interaction of the band, My Majesty's opening track, "Double Date," pounces forward with fierce spurts of narrative. On a blind date, Tillmann seizes his "last shot for rejection" and makes his move. The girl shoots him down with an icy "Honestly, you thought that you could get with me?" and boots him out of the car. In a cab ride home, his driver tells him about some rockers he'd encountered who had been dosed with VD after sharing a willing scene girl backstage. With grim resentment, the narrator prays vehemently that his date is that diseased groupie.

As with great poets of bitterness from Elvis Costello to Richard Thompson, Tillmann's resentment doesn't escape tinges of misogyny. But he doesn't spare his narrators either. His bitterness is an ugly symptom of an ugly world. As Bryan Hanna's explosive fills lend "Grew Into My Body" the shambling assault of a Who's Next track, Tillmann sneers at a fallen bully, "Now all the underdogs are lowering your casket."

After ten tracks of mindless substance abuse and bad or thwarted sex, My Majesty closes with the sweet, palette-cleansing "I Need a Girl." Tillmann lists fantasy types--from "sugar mommy" to "new-wave girl" to "older woman"--before closing, "I need a girl who's all of these things to some degree, or I will never be truly happy." You wonder how high true happiness is on his agenda just now. It might smother his muse. And that would be a shame, because with My Majesty, Sean Tillmann has finally grown into his spite.

 
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