It’s great fun trying to pin down Har Mar Superstar. Is he the real deal, or just an indie-rock hipster’s snide send-up of modern R&B’s cartoon libidos? Weird Al Yankovic meets Andrew W.K.? Andy Kaufman meets Prince? How about Andy Richter meets Morris Day?
The latter analogy probably hits closest to the mark, because no matter how much attention Har Mar’s getting — and he’s getting a lot — he doesn’t really deserve to be compared to major talents. A chubby white guy who croons sweet R&B nothings and corny b-boy raps over minimalist funk, Har Mar Superstar, a.k.a. Sean Tillman, is mostly famous for his bizarre live shows, which feature the pasty St. Paul native singing and breakdancing along to a boombox as he slowly strips down to his sweat-soaked tighty-whiteys. It’s a shtick that’s gotten him opening gigs for everyone from the Strokes to Peaches to Incubus, and made him the latest entrant in the novelty act sweepstakes, right behind fellow stripped-down post-ironists Tenacious D and the aforementioned Mr. W.K.. It’s probably also what helped him nab Kelly Osbourne as his date to the MTV Music Video Awards, but I’ll leave that particular subplot for the tabloids to sort out.
Live acts and star-fucking aside, Har Mar’s major label debut, You Can Feel Me, is actually a pretty good record, well-produced and chock full of funky grooves and a smart “less is more” sensibility — every track save the title tune clocks in with punk-rock brevity at under three minutes, and the production is crisp and uncluttered. Har Mar won’t dazzle anyone with his pipes or lyrical acumen (well, actually, he already has, but they should all know better), but he’s got a deft touch with catchy dance hooks and infectious melodies. And perhaps mostly shrewdly of all, even minus the visual cues of his paunch and receding hairline, he plays his everyman-turned-sex-god persona to the hilt, entertaining us while never once letting us forget that he’s just some average schmoe doing this, not a well-groomed diva with washboard abs and decades of training. He’s the Adam Sandler of funk, almost magically capable of being crass and endearing at the same time.
Setting the tone right off the bat with “Intro”, a track that features a deliberately botched backing vocal and an earnest “thanks for buying my record” speech, Har Mar proceeds through a series of songs that, beneath all the b-boy posturing, sound like the work of a geeky suburban white kid laying down tracks in his basement with a drum machine, an old Roland synthesizer, and an unhealthy fixation on Prince’s Dirty Mind period.
“Power Lunch”, an ode of office booty calls, starts things off with one of Har Mar’s better funk riffs, great lyrics (“Silk and lace in my database/Baby, I want to interface”) and the album’s most convincingly soulful vocal courtesy of The Gossip’s Beth Ditto, who’s the perfect foil to Har’s lascivious crooning. “We Could Be Heavy”, “You Can Feel Me”, and “H.A.R.M.A.R.” unfold in a similar vein, with lots of sparse beats, anthemic synths and Har Mar’s comically improbable ladies’ man persona, though none of them ever quite equals the sexy fun of “Power Lunch” or the highlight of the album’s first half, “Elephant Walk”. This silly dance-along anthem is where Har Mar inspires comparisons to Morris Day, whose silly dance-along anthems “The Bird” and “Oak Tree” were some of the best guilty pleasures of the ’80s. Over a simple but irresistibly funky beat, Har Mar exhorts his fans to “Crane your neck and lower your head/And keep it swinging from left to right/Turn out your feet 45 degrees/And bend your knees till it’s feeling light”. A lame rap from Clark Baechle of lo-fi rockers The Faint nearly derails the song, but the rest of it is so good you can forgive the intrusion.
Like another white Midwestern homeboy named Eminem, Har Mar seems to have a bad habit of turning things over to “friends” whose talents pale in comparison to his own. Apart from Beth Ditto, none of the featured guest vocalists fares well: The amusingly loopy Dirty Preston wears out his welcome on his “One Dirty Minute” rap, which is about forty-five seconds too long, and both he and the aptly-named Ric Diculous sound like drunk frat boys in a karaoke bar on “Let’s Get This Party Kickin'”. Maybe that’s the point, but I think it’s a mistake for Har Mar to surround himself with collaborators more amateurish than he is. His shtick works best when his supporting cast maintains the illusion that the “Superstar” part of the show is real.
On the second half of You Can Feel Me, Har Mar strays from his trademark bare-bones funk and produces some of his best work to date. “No Chorus” features his sharpest rap, a giddy Penthouse Forum tale of Har Mar’s sexual exploits that, er, climaxes with the lumpy lothario coming home to find his “baby masturbatin’ to the Har Mar sound”. “Freedom Summer”, employing a sample from the Meters’ “Rigor Mortis”, has a great Philly soul vibe that lets Har Mar uncork a convincingly soulful performance, and the album’s infectious closing track, “EZ Pass”, employs the jangly piano chords and tambourine-heavy percussion of an early ’90s Brit-rave anthem. Only “Love Jam No. 1”, a straight-faced attempt at an R. Kelly-style ballad, doesn’t really fly; sincerity doesn’t suit the over-the-top Har Mar persona.
Where You Can Feel Me really wins you over is in the details; it’s full of offbeat, throwaway moments, like the way Har Mar rhymes “miso,” “chorizo” and “Mother Thereso” on “H.A.R.M.A.R.” or the water sound effects at the end of “Elephant Walk” that prompt him to ask, “Who put the beat in the bathtub?” Har Mar may not be a white-boy hip-hop/R&B talent on the order of Eminem or even Jamiroquai’s J.K., but he’s got wit and pop smarts to burn, and that alone is enough to help him transcend mere novelty-act status and step out as a bonafide — well, not a superstar, but at least a worthy heir to underrated funk-pop acts of yore like Cameo, the S.O.S. Band and (yes, I have to mention him one more time) Morris Day & the Time. Yes, Har Mar, I feel you . . . just please keep your tighty-whiteys on, okay?