The first time I saw Har Mar Superstar (a.k.a. Sean Tillman) perform, it was on Jimmy Kimmel in 2003. I remember this because Har Mar is unforgettable; like it or not, you will always remember where you were when you saw a man who looked like a cross between Jon Lovitz and Ron Jeremy strip down to a thong within the first 15 seconds of his performance. At the time nobody was quite sure what to make of him – if it was a joke, then it’s a joke without a punchline. Any subtext there (“it’s quite strange when a dude does this, isn’t it?”) was obscured by the fact that Har Mar was clearly a talented performer – he had moves, he had the voice, and the original song he performed (“Power Lunch”) had a hell of a hook to it. To hear him tell it – “if I looked like Usher, nobody would say anything”…well, maybe, but Har Mar’s performances were about ten times more sexually charged than that.
Suffice to say it didn’t seem like he was very well-liked in that capacity. At least, anyone I knew who had heard of him had some story like – “that’s the guy who opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was awful.” Not to say untalented, just something that hetero dudes weren’t really used to seeing, especially combined with his special blend of fuck you swagger that you don’t often see from dudes who hadn’t really made it yet. Maybe his music career was stuck in neutral, but he kept showing up; he did vodka commercials, he palled around with Kelly Osbourne, and he had a surprise cameo in the Starsky and Hutch movie. I kind of forgot about him for a while, until one day I was visiting my uncle in St. Paul and he said “Har Mar Superstar’s doing a show five minutes from here, you should go”. Hey, it doesn’t take much to convince me. And you know what? It was awesome. See, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks of Har Mar Superstar, in the Twin Cities, they love him unconditionally. And that sort of energy is infectious when you’re dealing with such a party animal, a guy who was down to his boxers in two minutes flat, even though he still had an hour-plus to go. Maybe it was just him singing along to his own songs on his iPod, but whatever, he killed it. Plus, his setlist was heavy on his new album Dark Touches, which was surprisingly good – easily his best, though I do have to point out that those first three albums were awfully patchy.
In 2013, Har Mar Superstar released his fifth album, Bye Bye 17. It’s fair to say that it was not what you or I or anyone else could have expected. If you didn’t know better, you could easily have mistaken it for a great lost soul record from the 60’s, right down to the dusty vinyl-crackle that adorns the entire disc. It is the kind of album that would likely be seen as a gimmick if it weren’t so damn good. Gone is the disco, gone are the Casios, instead say hello to good ol’ fashioned funk, soul, and doo-wop, performed by a full band with a loud horn section. And thus, Har Mar Superstar had another moment, this time even sweeter since it came so far into his career, a decade after he’d appeared on Jimmy Kimmel to confused stares across the nation.
About a month ago I made plans to go see him in Milwaukee, deciding to see him play live before I’d heard the new album, just because you don’t get to hear it first live very often. But Best Summer Ever is a strange album to experience that way. I recognized “Youth Without Love” as what was probably the new single, but other than that I couldn’t figure out if the songs he was playing were covers or originals, since he was hopping around from one genre to the next. And of course his songwriting has elevated so much that his originals are starting to sound like they could sit comfortably next to decade-old classics. As it turns out Best Summer Ever is a purposely disjointed album – jokingly billed as Har Mar Superstar’s greatest hits from 1950 to 1985 (from the ages of 7 to -28, I guess), it’s meant to show off the man’s range, his affection for R&B in all its forms, and most of all, his pipes.
As you might expect after the gloriously retro Bye Bye 17, Har Mar really does go all-in on this concept, almost to a fault. Produced by Julian Casablancas, the calling cards of the past are all over this record, to the point where there are two tracks that sound like they’re coming at you via Gramophone (“How Do I Get Through The Day?” and “My Radiator”), plus other hallmarks of old records, like echoed-out backing vocals (“Haircut”), or bass drums so loud they blow out the speakers (“Famous Last Words”). Granted, this effect sometimes feels like a novelty – “How Do I Get Through The Day?” certainly sounds authentic, but it’s a good enough song that you really do wish there was a cleaner version out there. On the other hand, the blow out on “Famous Last Words” is something truly awesome, an effect I don’t think I’ve ever heard on another album before.
Despite the disc’s title and Har Mar’s all-too-public persona, Best Summer Ever really is Sean Tillman’s crooner album, the soundtrack of one-too-many summer flings. There is some cheekiness there of course – the disco-ready “It Was Only Dancing (Sex)” and “Anybody’s Game”, which repeats the line “everybody came”…sorry Mr. Superstar, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt on that one. But the essence of the album is in the bookending tracks. “I Hope”, a rendition of the Bobby Charles tune, is faithfully covered in strings, though they have a slight, almost vaporwavish tinge of decay to them, and occasionally you hear a big analog synth line sweep in. It’s as if he’s presenting the song through the distortion of his own memory, sometimes pitchbending his own vocal to add to the surreal atmosphere. It may be the most striking tune in his catalogue thus far, so much more thoughtful and resonant than the sort of appropriations he’d done in the past. “Confidence”, the somber closing number, recalls 60’s doowop so accurately that its astonishing to find out that it’s actually an original – like the opener, there’s a certain haze over it, and if you bend your ear you might be able to make out something that sounds like a faint mellotron choir in there.
In general the whole album’s like that – you hear little bits of decay in the edges of the sound, especially in the horns, which seem blasted in from half a century ago. All’s well as long as the songwriting holds up, which it mostly does. Tillman knows that brevity counts for something in the world of Spotify’s Digital Buffet, capping it at a solid half hour, with enough consistency to make it believable as a real “greatest hits” record (short bedroom throwaway “My Radiator” excepted – still good though!). Plus, it’s fun to imagine what Alternate Timeline Har Mar’s career would’ve been like – I’m guessing “Youth Without Love” would be his comeback single, as it’s the most modern thing on here, and given how hard we’ve reverted into 80’s production values it doesn’t sound out of place today. Good thing too, because in my opinion it’s got a claim to be The Song of the Summer this year.
That is, if the public is willing to give Har Mar Superstar a chance. That was the biggest surprise of Bye Bye 17 – not that someone was able to produce a great soul record in 2013, but that it came from a guy perhaps most well known for rocking a banana thong and invading the personal space of anyone who dared get too close. Certainly Har Mar has always had the confidence, but there are now some legs behind the frequently heard claim that there was real, bona fide talent behind all the sweat. Of course, some of us knew it all along – during the performance on Kimmel, he closed with a rendition of “Sir Duke” that was as funky and amazing as only Stevie himself could’ve done, the sort of performance designed to win over the same crowd he seemingly tried so hard to alienate minutes before. Now older and wiser, he’s toned down his act (definitely not all the way down, but some), perhaps because he has no need for it anymore. These songs speak for themselves.