I’ve grown, just recently, very wary of bands described as “catchy”. The word alone has a connotation that is at least partially negative. When I think of things that you catch, I think of things you trick somehow to obtain or, worse, some sort of illness that tricks you and you catch it. Also, catching something is so temporary. You ever caught fireflies in a jar? They don’t last long. There is always, after the catch, the question of what to do next. So, to say music is successful merely by “catching” the listener is not enough. The catch is just the first step, in my opinion. And, to end my diatribe on the state of “catchy”, all music should catch you in some way (if we’re to define catchy, in this instance, as getting and holding your attention), whether through infectious hooks, or clever lyrics, an interesting use of white noise, or a myriad other methods. To make catchy music is to take a first step to success; the success being making interesting, compelling music.
Enter into this argument Sean Na Na, a.k.a. Sean Tillman, and his new album Family Trees or: Must Cope We. This album is as catchy as you’ll ever hear. If it came on at a party, you’d ask someone who it was, you’d nod your head, maybe bounce to a little. But the next morning, while nursing your hangover, you’d be severely disappointed when you remember the band’s name and listened to the stuff on their MySpace page. These songs just don’t stand up to any sort of examination. They deflate upon prodding. Surely Sean isn’t the only musician guilty of this, but some of them overcome it with the pure energy of their music, or the strength and originality of their songs.
But take opener “We’ve Been Here Before”. At first listen, it sounds like the poppiest piece of pop you’ll hear all year. That is, until 45 seconds into the song, when you realize the guitars sound exactly like “Let’s Dance”. “Can’t Get a Spark” sounds like a Shins castoff. “I’ll Take it All” sounds like the White Stripes as realized by a college town cover band. “Hairspray” gets a vote for possible best song on the album, only because it at least sounds interesting. It’s quiet and delicate in a way everything else isn’t and the melody, while not terribly inventive, is stronger than all the other stuff here.
More than anyone else though, Sean sounds like Elvis Costello on this record. He has down the melted-sugar hooks and the quick delivery, side-of-the-mouth vocals. Unfortunately, his lyrics sound like they’re trying to be clever more than they actually ever are. Couple with that the fact that his songs—most of which are straightforward narratives—are rendered unbelievable by an utter lack of emotion. Closer “Straight Dope” deals with rundown, poor druggies (the title is, you guessed it, a pun), in which Sean sings a chorus that goes “We don’t got no hope, we don’t got no hope, and that’s the straight dope.” He also offers near-clever lines like “Chemistry is a meth lab, it’ll burn you.” And frankly, this line, and a few like it on the album, come off totally opposed to their intention. The songs on the album are clearly meant to be emotional, to get at some core of human existence. Instead, lines about meth labs come off as insensitive, using complicated troubles like addiction to cheap, damaging drugs as a way to complete a witty pun. Most of the “characters” Sean represents in these songs are supposed to be lovelorn or down on their luck, but set over sugary sweet, lazily played pop, the emotions of these scenes ring hollow. In the end, Sean almost seems to be condescending to the characters in these songs, using them to meet girls after the show or some other equally nefarious plan.
I don’t like to make such assertions about artists because, well, I don’t know them. And Sean could be down on his luck and lovelorn and all the other things he sings about here. But if that is the case, none of it comes out in his music, and that is a problem. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Family Trees is that the playing is so tight—too tight, too restricted. It makes you wonder what would happen if Sean and co. let themselves loosen up a little, if he dared to maybe sing a flat note, if they didn’t buff every song to a plexiglass sheen. Sean and his band are clearly good musicians, they can play a song beginning to end solidly. But, it becomes clear on this album, that doesn’t always make for good songs.