Dan Sartain can’t help but come across as the paranoid type. His features are lean and intense, shaded behind dark glasses and crowned by a jet-black tsunami of a greaser cut. He radiates something both threatening and vulnerable; a strange hybrid of Nicholas Ray’s Jim and Plato vibrating across the stage in surf-rock spasms. His musical style, all spaghetti-surf and smooth rockabilly panache cut through with red-stained slashes of fear and loathing, has been honed on 2005’s Dan Sartain vs. the Serpientes and the following year’s Join Dan Sartain. Whether trying frantically to keep shadowy predators at bay on Join‘s “Gun vs. Knife” or bitterly reflecting “But when you hold me / All you want to talk about is him” on “Replacement Man”, Sartain sings and plays like a man beset by personal demons, securing just enough comfort from the nearness of his blade and the cathartic twang of his six-string.
As if to reassure us that he’s still out there, still vigilant, and still apt to strike with venom if disturbed, the Birmingham, Alabama, rocker has chosen Dan Sartain Lives! for the title of his first album in four years. The album’s tone makes it immediately clear that it hasn’t been a particularly restful break. Opener “Those Thoughts” finds Sartain in the grip of a downright Hitchcockian terror, as he cries “I don’t wanna know who’s at my door / Peepin’ through my mail slot / I don’t wanna think about those thoughts / Even if they’re happy or they’re not”. It’s a return to the tortured rock n’ roll soundscape of Join Dan Sartain, and an initial indication that the man glaring out from behind the oversized chrome mic hasn’t fallen asleep at his post.
Follow-up track “Anything I Say” finds Sartain at his most rock-tinged, anchored by a throaty, rumbling motor of a rhythm section. He plays out a brash call and response with his guitar over the song’s quick and dirty run. It’s worth mentioning that none of the songs on Dan Sartain Lives! live to see the three-minute mark. Sartain’s music hangs on the success of its hooks, and he is wise to keep things succinct and sizzling-hot on the best songs to be found on this record, including “Bohemian Grove”, “Walk Among the Cobras IV”, and the particularly strong “Voo Doo”.
Lives! proves that Sartain certainly hasn’t lost his cynical streak or his paranoid view of the world. He’s actually shifted into an even darker style on this record. Its middle section sags under the weight of some slower songs that, while expressing the most detached, distressed, and shadowy fragments of Sartain’s psyche, just don’t have the kind of eye-opening jolt necessary to carry them through even their short running times. “Bad Things Will Happen” and “Ruby Carol” are the guiltiest in this regard; “Atheist Funeral”, on the other hand, shows off a much better balance between campy haunted house stomp and bluesy fire.
Thankfully, “Voo Doo” kicks the album right back into gear with a satisfying rockabilly flourish. “I Don’t Wanna Go to the Party” keeps the late-album energy going, retelling some of the alienated wallflower’s lament heard on Join Dan Sartain‘s “Drama Queens”, but dropping the vicious retorts that peppered its forebear (in which Sartain cackles “When you see your friends tonight / Oh, tell ’em that I died, ha ha!”) in favour of a more pervasive sense of despair.
Dan Sartain Lives! is certainly an album that walks further down the path cut by its predecessors, wielding the rock ‘n’ roll chops needed to battle a whole host of dreadful portents (none as explicit as the one found in the opening titles of the “Atheist Funeral” video, which spell out “God Said the World’s Coming to an End”) but it’s a shame that he hasn’t made the gauntlet quite as exhilarating to run this time around.