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Artist: Mark Sultan

Album: $

Label: Last Gang

Review date: May. 26, 2010

Mark Sultan has been bashing out garage for years, usually under aliases, and most widely known for the one-man-band BBQ and in the twinned one-man-band of King Kahn & BBQ Show. He’s the one that provides the smooth to King Kahn’s bluster.

His voice is clear and expressive in a genre where it’s hardly needed. He showed it off best on his first solo album, Sultanic Verses. That very retro set of songs was dosed with contemporary paranoia and shaky production, like the zombified corpse of Buddy Holly had shown up to report his impressions of 2007 — eerily polite and skeptical of the modern world.

Sultan’s hardly the only one to get sparks from the friction between sweet melodies and woozy amps. But he doesn’t really sound like anyone else. Those who mine early rock ‘n’ roll don’t generally go to Frankie Lymon or Dion when they’re looking for melodies that have an aura of innocence. That doo-wop feel was a big part of early rock and roll, but reads as too innocent. It was replayed in Grease and Sha Na Na and the first wave of 1950s nostalgia, making it out of date two times over. And it’s hard style to sing; those guys, like Sultan, had light and high voices, yet could really belt.

Sultan’s second album, $, puts a lot more wooziness in his sound. A bunch of the songs pass the four-minute mark, and he uses the time to sink into strange grooves. "Icicles" stacks wailing guitar on a shamble, like an arena rock solo, though it’s so roughly knocked out, it’s hard to read it as anything but DIY. When the vocals come in, they’re the sort of tripping sing-along that the Pretty Things would blow their minds to. Nothing innocent there, even ironically.

For "I Am the End," his doo-wop talents are cozier with a slow-dance sway — slow enough to be a dirge. It floats on top of electronic oscillations and is torn in the middle by a blast of noise. On the other hand, normal instruments play through the middle of the song, and the lyric is well worn couplets for a doubtful lover. But that title, finishing off each verse, makes it seem like the noise is the heart of the song, that it’s more a dirge than slow dance, more despair than longing.

The thing about Sultan is that melodies come more naturally than the chaos. It’s like he’s got to force the clumsiness into songs to get the grit he wants. "Status" is a tight little jab at social networking, and it hops so happily, he’s got to derail the thing on purpose to make his point.

It’s obvious where $ could be a lot tighter. And it’s just as obvious that Sultan doesn’t want that. He’s motivated by the tidy emotions of old songs, but refuses to serve them to us. Maybe it’s a consequence of making so many records — he’s fighting against his own skills. Now that’s a problem a lot of artist would love to have.

By Ben Donnelly

Other Reviews of Mark Sultan

The Sultanic Verses


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