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Dan Sartain - Dan Sartain Lives

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Artist: Dan Sartain

Album: Dan Sartain Lives

Label: One Little Indian

Review date: Jul. 21, 2010

Dan Sartain’s songs abound with images of familiar conflict and expected restraint — dogs chained to trees, deities denied in the throes of matrimony. Many of the 13 songs on Dan Sartain Lives, his fifth album, stretch taut guitar parts over minimal rhythms, a self-aware Southern Gothic take on garage punk. (In keeping with the album’s ominous mood, one suspects that the number of songs here is no coincidence.) It doesn’t hurt that Sartain’s voice recalls that of a young Elvis Costello, both in its capacity to melodically convey abrasive sentiments and in its methodical transmission of embittered emotions. Five albums in, Sartain knows how to summon a mood, and the one that settles over the entirety of Dan Sartain Lives is consistent, even when certain songs don’t make as strong of an impression.

“Bohemian Grove” is Lives‘s most blissed-out number, running uptempo, essentially optimistic Apollonian pop through the muck and letting it shine. The mood is pastoral, leading up to a final kicker: “In the trees lays a Satanic priest,” Sartain exclaims as the song begins to wane, his voice cracking either from panic or grim graveyard laughter.

It’s a God-haunted album, this one. In the conflicted, sometimes irreverent take on faith, and (more overtly) in the titles of certain songs: “Atheist Funeral,” “Praying for a Miracle.” It’s on the former that Sartain makes the strongest impression, citing the afterlife, then denying it, each stanza concluding with a rebuttal to religious and societal traditions. It doesn’t hurt that it’s the number with the most kick: the drum stomps and the guitar spikes, suggesting a doomsaying take on the Reverend Horton Heat.

The stylistic minimalism Sartain employs here does begin to lose its charm after a while. Not all of these 13 songs are particularly memorable, and even given the album’s half-hour running time, it’s an approach that loses some steam before the last notes of the album’s last song ring out. And at times, Sartain’s cheekiness eludes charm: “Ruby Carol”’s paraphrasing from “Swinging on a Star” doesn’t seem inspired in the same way that Built to Spill and Okkervil River have built memorable songs atop references to other memorable songs.

In the end, Dan Sartain Lives propels itself forward with a solid amount of assurance to get its mood across—but not quite enough to demonstrate a willingness to push the boundaries of a well-honed style.

By Tobias Carroll

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