My father, a Cuban national and Dallas Public Schools educator, claims that the best indicator of mastery of American English is proper use of the word "cute". Minneapolis trio Sean Na Na is cute: cute in the most complimentary, most rock-and-roll way. They're as cute as they can be when they're rocking out. Frontman Sean Tillmann, once described to me as "If you stuck a young Paul Simon into a barrel, and then extracted him," dances like a playa, croons so sweetly it's almost unbearable, and plays a beat-up acoustic guitar. Keyboardist Lucky Jeremy is a wee thing who constantly looks like he's about to pass out, maybe because of all the parties, maybe because of the voltage of his instrument. Adopted drummer Ben Webster, of Austin's Tune in Tokyo, exemplifies the cuteness of making exaggerated faces while pounding on the skins. There's no passive introspection here, no aloofness or noodling onstage.
If anything is embarrassingly coy about Sean Na Na, it's the records, the handful of singles released on a half-dozen labels come off sounding kind of like Quasi if Sam Coomes weren't so damn cranky. The latest release is a split CDEP with Mary Lou Lord on Kill Rock Stars records, and the three Sean Na Na songs on the disc triumph as the most hummable and bittersweet in their discography. Like the e-mails from my best friend that I read and reread, Tillmann's songwriting is sincere, sarcastic, comforting, and wince-inducing. The Princess and the Pony opens the Na Na half, a song about snotty girls, bad hair, and bad habits. As in, "And when you finally come down, the pony you've been riding around town turns out to be a man, and that overheated crimping iron burns your hands, again...How many of you will left to drink whiskey at my funeral party? Remember to bring your flask, and pour a shot for your dead homey."
Tillmann's a small man of many incarnations: He was the teenage bassist and singer in Minnesota punk band Calvin Krime. He's one-half of the head of the 'zine Hit It or Quit It, in which he writes about such things as his Midwestern winter mandate of the "socks-on-sex policy." The standard set closer, a bump-rock cover of R. Kelly's "When a Woman's Fed Up"(complete with breakdance moves) is a glimpse at perhaps his most notorious persona, Har Mar Superstar. Emerging from the Sean Na Na front is Har Mar, an R&B teen idol (named after a shopping mall) along the lines of Brandy and Tevin Campbell, only recording for Kill Rock Stars' sister label, 5RC.
The band comes to our neighborhood twice this week, and they've been through twice before in the last six months. They hit Rubber Gloves last November with what may have been the ultimate party team: Philadelphia über-goof Atom and his Package, and sleazy Sacramento groove-core outfit !!!. In February, the Bar of Soap saw Sean Na Na as Tillmann alone with his guitar. This time they're all here, with friend Ted Leo, Boston smart-boy rocker formerly of Chisel, as he now forges into the electronic and experimental, and Leo's little brother's band, The Holy Childhood. Always touring, and always up for a party, Sean Na Na are cute, but also possibly the best rock band you'll see for a while. Watch out for the full-length on Troubleman Unlimited Records, Dance Til Your Baby Is a Man. Indeed.
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