Sean Na Na – My Majesty

Sean Na Na
My Majesty

There are a couple of different songwriting ideologies running around the rock ‘n roll world. Some bands are experimental junkies: bands like My Bloody Valentine and Godspeed You Black Emperor seek to create an atmosphere or a mood of some sort by squeezing something new out of their instruments. Some bands adhere to the jam band aesthetic: Sonic Youth and Bardo Pond seek enlightened instrumental mastery and prolonged, random experimentation. Most prevalent are those who adhere sternly to the idea of “The Hook.” These bands, of whom there are numerous examples, focus most of their energies on songwriting. Now, these aesthetics are not mutually exclusive (in fact, some of the greatest bands combine these methods – The Velvet Underground, Radiohead, and dare I mention The Beatles), but for the most part your average rock band can only be bothered with one approach. This is why Mogwai is concerned with long instrumental passages, and why The Alkaline Trio muster little more than three-chord punk songs. In other words, the experimenters don’t concern themselves with hooks, and the hook-meisters can’t be bothered with creating anything new (the jammers can’t be bothered with bathing, socializing, or tuning their instruments).
Sean Na Na – the name that Sean Tillman calls himself on stage – and friends adhere very strictly to The Hook. They care very little about interesting instrumental compositions, or even challenging their chord changes. You see, for people like Sean Tillman, instruments aren’t tools of a musician: they’re simply what must be used behind the “songs” that the band writes (though I do get the impression that Mr. Tillman himself does most of the writing). That’s why My Majesty, the new offering from Sean Na Na, contains very straightforward instrumentation. The album is rife with major chords, 4/4 time signatures, and accessible, hook-driven songs.
The merits of this kind of approach are debatable. Often fans of one aesthetic refuse to acknowledge the worth of the other (especially true for the blasted jammers). I’m not having that debate here. I’m just not. I’m just being helpful and informative. All that being said, its about time we take a look at Sean Na Na’s sons. As mentioned before, they’re awfully straightforward: every song is filled with the kind of shameless hooks that powered AM radio in the 1970’s. And if you’re even remotely paying attention, you could guess that there’s a humorous bend to this music. It’s not in a Tenacious D sort of way, nor is it quite as goofy as Reggie and the Full Effect. Rather, it’s the kind of humor that allows the press guide to anoint Tillman with a “razor sharp wit.” All this means is that his lyrics are kind of silly and funny, but in a way that still allows him to complain about a bad relationship in a very real way. This sort of thing doesn’t always thrill me, but its not too overdone here, so I will do my best to overlook it.
The big problem with the album, for me, is that I’ve listened to the album five or six times now, and I still can’t distinguish most of the songs. Many of them sound like the propulsive leadoff track “Double Date”: upbeat, with a verse that’s often as poppy as the chorus. Though some would call this great songwriting, it doesn’t help the songs stand out when you can’t tell the verse from the chorus. Tracks three and four manage to stand out a bit. The former, “Spread the Good Feelin’,” sounds a whole lot like the White Stripe’s “Hotel Yorba,” though in a cool, rockabilly sort of way. “Third Life” is not quite as successful: it’s a dripping ballad that contains the line “Rise again, like a phoenix you will rise again.” This is a taste of the humor. I know he’s not serious with those lyrics, but in a ballad this sloth-like (not to mention one without a great hook) it doesn’t help the song at all.
But I’m being far too critical. For the most part, the songs on this album are excellently written, if you like this sort of thing. The musicianship may not be inventive, but it’s tight and fits the style well. Tillman has a big, stadium-rock voice straight out of the 70s, and though he’s occasionally guilty of over-singing, he again and again proves himself a competent frontman. If you’re into unadulterated hooks, straightforward pop songs, and a bit of humor, then this album will not disappoint.