Song of the day – 454: Dan Sartain (+ bonus album review)
There’s a band called Thee Spivs, from the U.K.
They do this sort of shit brilliantly: stripped-back buzzsaw punk songs, laden with attitude and hooks, over in a brief explosion of expression because there’s no point in hanging around. Young kids (to my eyes) dressed up in clobber inspired by suedehead culture – although doubtless they wouldn’t call it such. Some could call it revivalist but really what does that mean? How can it be revivalist finding inspiration in musical forms and doctrines that blossomed before you were born? What, because they aren’t in mainstream fashion? Thee Spivs make beautiful, brutal, bittersweet dirty power-pop punk – think Royal Headache, think early Go-Go’s, think first album Supergrass – and enjoy dressing up and lookin’ mighty good (the way I imagine ‘mighty good’ to be). Hooks are first, foremost and everything. Brevity is partly the key, but it’s misleading to dwell on song-length as an arbiter of cool. I know plenty of bands – hundreds of thousands – that can be shit within two minutes.
The new Dan Sartain album is 18.7 minutes long. It contains 13 songs.
That is not why it’s so brilliant.
It’s so brilliant because it fucken’ ROCKS.
I have no idea how what age Dan Sartain – that super-cool wiry cat from Birmingham, Alabama – is. I’m guessing he might’a been born some time around the year Ramones released their last brilliant album, the U.S. punk hardcore-inspired Too Tough To Die. I have no idea what folk this cat hangs with. In another age, I’d have been drinking Maker’s Mark bottles dry with him, for sure. No way this cat could have kept me from a-knockin’ on his door. His songs are too fucking sweet for me to have behaved in any other way. (He out-Lurkers the fucken’ Lurkers, you understand? Do you feel me? HE OUT-LURKERS THE FUCKEN’ LURKERS!) The way he swaggers, but don’t swagger, with an almost ineffable Jonathan Richman cool, would have made him impossible for me to resist. Not that I’d have wanted to. His new album is called Too Tough To Live and it’s fucken’ Joan Jett, J. Richman, Ramones great, the way every song is so focused, says what it wants to say and moves on but not without first lodging some fucking cheese-grater thrashing ear worm inside your brain. There’s guitar solos, shit yeah. There are melodies, fuck yeah. There’s hooks, there’s energy, there’s energy but most of all there’s LIFE.
Dan Sartain traces a lineage that calls in Link Wray, Gene Vincent, Jeremy Jay, Jonathan Richman, Buzzcocks, Ramones … of fucking course … and a hundred others, but is still uniquely brilliantly Sartain.
Too Tough To Live leaves me breathless … with excitement, at the audacity, at the sheer no-pulling-punches hookiness of it all. It gets the Ramones’ first album in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone manage before, not even the fucken’ Undertones. Because it’s hardcore and American, too.
Here’s what I wrote about him, back before he had a record contract, back when I still knew near to nothing about him. I only have one story of a brief encounter with Dan Sartain, when he called me up in Brighton a few years after this – he’d signed a big record contract but felt alone and misunderstood. I sure hope all that shit worked out for him. He seemed like a dude I really should have been knocking back shot after shot in a moonlit-strewn Southern bar with, not chatting to in-between bouts of nothingness. I have a feeling he might have lost his way a bit a few years back , but it’s only a feeling and now … and now I’m going to have to go back and make sure.
Dan Sartain Vs The Serpientes (Swami)
Mr Dan Sartain is a wiry, wired troubadour from Birmingham, Alabama – rugged in a rejected recruit kind of way – with a voice like cable and flame. He’s 21, and has already released three albums full of sparse, tumbledown rock’n’roll brimming over with righteous indignation (Voidoids, White Stripes, Gene Vincent, Voodoo Rhythm’s irrelevant love for the past). He’s 21, and looks perfect framed in grainy black and white, singing greasy laments about urban decay (“Metropolis”) and no-good girls (“I Could Have Had You”), driving down some dusty road in his ’72 Ford station wagon. He’s 21 and so far ahead of his retro-reverential peers (from Detroit to Jools Holland, it’s one easy step) it’s terrifying. No, not terrifying… exhilarating.
“Dan Sartain Vs The Serpientes” is drawn from several sources – the most recent being San Diego’s Drag Racist Studios in February ’03, with Mario Rubalcaba (drummer, Rocket From The Crypt) among those present. Dan leads his pick-up band on hollow body guitar and feedback, the gentle fleshing-out of the Rock Bone could no way be called OTT, but you should still ignore these five numbers. Sure, they’re fine – in a derivative, Hives noise-fest way, lacking the fire and individuality of Dan’s earlier work. One hopes this is a momentary aberration, and not an indication of future direction – this revisiting of time-honoured chords and twanged sound fails to do Mr Sartain justice. Only “Metropolis” connects, Dan’s voice back to its deadpan cool drawl even if the music is too *clean*.
Far superior are the songs recorded across town, same month, at Strange Sounds with full-on garage outfit Beehive And The Barracudas – “Cobras Pt II”, the “Elephant”-esque “Cobras Pt III” and their smirking companions, the instrumental menace of “Love Is Crimson” and “Romance”. Here Lies Rock, and the rock is pure.
Even finer is the full-on tearjerker, “Place To Call My Home”, from 2001’s vinyl-only “The Crimson Guard”, recorded in Dan’s own Birmingham garage, backed by “grand pops” on pump organ. Here, Dan shows off his ability to croon alongside the best of them (Toronto’s song-and-dance man Hawksley Workman)… See also, “Auto Pilot”, from 2002’s criminally underrepresented “Romance In Stereo” album: Dan coming over all Elvis for a moment of pure romance, with divine marimba as solitary back-up to his full-bodied acoustic. Then there’s the magical, solo closer “Got That Feeling”, with a beautiful sotto horn solo, and a Delta Flight 565 flying overhead…
Natural, inward-turned and eloquent, not relying on ornate instrumentation to cover flaws: like Jonathan Richman brought up on *Rocky* – Dan is a man/boy caught in life’s oncoming crossfire, unaware of artifice because artifice simply ain’t necessary when you’re this cool. And fuck man. Dan Sartain is the living personification of cool right now.
Everett True talks to Dan Sartain:
Who are your chosen ones from the Seventies?
“Jonathan Richman, Bowie, Iggy, the New York ‘punk’ scene stuff. All the stuff anyone with brains listened to back then. I was born in 1981 so it’s all before my time. But the Seventies album that influenced me the most is the soundtrack to *Rocky*. When I was a kid, it was my dream to become a boxer. I asked for punching bags, and boxing gloves, and stuff for my birthday, and Christmas. I’m a pretty small guy (5’9 and 120 lbs), and I was an even smaller kid, so after all the kids kicked my ass at backyard boxing I decided to ask my Dad to teach me guitar. But I still play that album before shows if I can, to pump myself up. I’m a failed athlete basically. Elvis Costello was cool, too.”
Please tell me a story about Birmingham, Alabama.
“Birmingham is cool now. It didn’t used to be. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade and started playing shows regularly at this club in the bottom of a Howard Johnson hotel. I was the opening act every weekend for a variety of bad false metal hair bands when I was 14 years old. I was never paid to play, but 30-something, big-haired, metal-head girls bought me drinks. Everyone thought it was cute to see some kid with just a guitar singing songs older than they were. It’s not like that anymore. It’s very much a melting pot of good musicians, and good shows. We got the tiger’s eye now.”
Why isn’t your awesome cover of [The Beatles’] “Mr Moonlight” on the new album?
“We had three albums’ worth of songs to choose from. It was too hard for me to choose so I left it all up to John Reis. I am fortunate enough to have a record label that I trust to make good choices. Swami hasn’t put out a bad album yet. I’m sure that song won’t be forgotten. It will wind up on an ‘Early Years’ album when Rhino Records come knocking. That’s a joke.”
Explain the Serpientes to a layman.
“Serpiente is Spanish for serpent, or snake. It’s the fancy way for me to say the same thing twice. The cobras trilogy is all about the Man, and the everlasting boot he (or she) has on your neck, and leeches are the guys trying to take what you ain’t got. It makes sense to me anyway.”
What is your concept of rock’n’roll?
“I don’t know any thing outside of it. It’s more than just a rhythm, or a sound, even. It’s my religion. It’s my job. It’s a curse, and a blessing. It makes me cry, it makes me cum. I’m in love with it.”
How do you prefer to hold guitar?
“I spoon with it in my sleep.”
What’s that rope on the cover of your new record all about?
“Well, it freaked my mom out to see it. She used to tell me how cool it was to see Alice Cooper do it live while she was on acid in the Seventies, but I guess it’s something else to see your kid doing it. It’s also a reference to ‘Cobras Pt II’. Thanks.”
Dan Sartain is in love with rock and roll. And he’ll be out all night.