Dan Sartain Lives

[One Little Indian; 2010]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: rockabilly, retro garage-blues rock
Others: Reverend Horton Heat, Elvis Costello’s country albums, Dan Auerbach

Back in 2003, when music fans and critics first started noticing Birmingham, Alabama’s Dan Sartain, they tended to place him in the retro garage-punk scene with The White Stripes and The Black Keys. Arguably, his stripped-down approach to Southern rockabilly lent itself to such a categorization. And over the last few years, where Jack White and Dan Auerbach have proven they hold many more cards up their sleeves, Sartain’s shown that he’s no less diverse. In fact, 2006’s Join Dan Sartain found the artist already growing bored with the minimalism inherent to low-fidelity rock. He tried incorporating Spanish guitar into a few songs and on one track boldly flirted with a tight chord progression that suggested a distorted hybrid of Delta blues and funk.

But in the interim between Join and this year’s Lives, Sartain somehow managed to wander home again. The new album returns to the ostentatious rockabilly that first garnered him attention, and it shows Sartain narrowing his focus and limiting his influence to two distinct sets. On most of the new tracks, he resumes his uncanny homage to the frenzied bombast of Jerry Lee Lewis. Selections like “Doin’ Anything I Say” and “Touch Me” bounce and swing with the same titular mayhem that Lewis made famous (and made Lewis famous), but they’re touched with Sartain’s aggressive guitar instead of the former’s trademark ivory. These songs also depict Sartain at his most angular and confrontational: “I know we all must go to heaven or hell/ But don’t speak about God at my funeral,” he snarls on “Athiest Funeral.”

On other pieces, Sartain channels the Southern charm of Elvis Costello’s classic country covers album, Almost Blue, pairing the gothic tales with the same hushed blues guitar that Auerbach featured on Keep it Hid. This combination provides most of the stronger work here. “Prayin’ for a Miracle” possesses the same iconoclastic sentiments as “Athiest Funeral,” but presents them in a more considered manner: “Heaven help me if God exists/ I don’t believe in any of this.” Meanwhile, Sartain describes a place where the “elite can live like primitives” on “Bohemian Grove,” while later he longs for sycophantic reassurance on “Yes Men.” The songs are still upbeat, but lyrically, they depict a wiser Sartain — still making familiar observations, but in a much more astute way.

In either mode, Sartain punctuates all of the tracks with the same confident guitar playing he’s become known for, and whether providing a simple electric strum or plucking a wild solo, the effect is compelling. Sartain’s guitar is both raw and practiced, straightforward and adept, and fortunately that skillful playing elevates some of the lesser efforts that round out the album.

Links: Dan Sartain - One Little Indian

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