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Mark Sultan - Whatever/Whenever

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Artist: Mark Sultan

Album: Whatever/Whenever

Label: In the Red

Review date: Oct. 25, 2011

Mark Sultan - "In Future Worlds"

Mark Sultan is not happy about the state of rock and roll. He’s not happy about a lot of things, the way his last album $ was promoted (or not promoted), his most recent European tour, and the proliferation of one-man bands (which, even he admits, is kind of ironic). His blog (at www.marksultan.com) is one continuous cri de coeur, a rant against fashion and sports and commerce and falsity (though punctuated with show listings and a pretty impressive stream of new 7”s). His current thinking is that rock ‘n’ roll can only be saved by killing it, but what does either element of that equation — saving or killing — actually mean?

A typically empassioned, typically stream-of-conscious passage reads like this:

    “I am not defending expensive costumes, Sonics covers, wrestling masks, one-man bands, ‘trash’, zombies, ‘voodoo’, hipster stereotypes from any genre/music ‘lifestyle’, Del Taco, the desperate dressing by-the-numbers ‘cool’ to fit in, or shtick over songs. Do everything you can with soul. Wrap rock’n’roll up in the stink of sincerity so the tastemakers and the vampires cannot enjoy it. Confuse them. Shroud the music and disguise it. Smuggle it with love and knowledge, inside your body, mind and damaged colon. But how long can this method last, without condescension and irony tearing out the floorboards like cops?”

Good question.

Whatever/Whenever is an answer, of sorts, the CD a sampling from two vinyl albums that draw on Sultan’s early rock palette of influences: garage rock, doo-wop, rockabilly, soul, country and psychedelia. Sultan performs three out of the 13 songs by himself, but elsewhere gets an assist from garage-rocking contemporaries like Jared Swilley and Cole Alexander from Black Lips and Choyce from Red Mass. The music is sweaty, anarchic, lo-fi hedonism, a beer-and-tattoos kind of music that sounds live on the record and even more live in performance. It’s a back to basics move, an attempt to return to the live, beating heart of rock and roll. It seems unlikely to either kill or save his art form — and again, what would either of those outcomes look like? — but it is certainly wrapped in sincerity.

Most of us probably associate Sultan’s old-time genres with good times, with sticky floors and packed bars, the smell of beer, the electricity of moving bodies and sudden eye contact. Yet, even if you don’t visit Sultan’s blog, you can sense an undercurrent of anger bubbling up in these tracks. There’s an interesting bit of disconnect between the celebratory energy of Sultan’s favored genres and the lyrics, which are always biting and occasionally enraged.

Doo-wop, for instance, is usually kind of a romantic genre, its pendulous, back-and-forth sway tailored to slow dancing, its verses generally concerned with infatuation. Well, here’s Sultan cranking the Frankie Valley charm in “If I Had Polaroid”: “Well, I can safely say your beauty is as ugly as your pride.” He’s mad as hell, even amid the 12/8 shuffle of early 1960s pop.

This kind of tension gives even his most faithful replications a lacerating modern edge. His best garage-party-dance-club rave-up, “Axis Abraxas,” starts with the whoa-oh’ed observation that “It’s like suicide.” His boot-kicking, two-stepping rockabilly rampage “Satisfied and Lazy” spits and howls with rage, even as it insists that you get up and move. Have you ever gotten drunk to forget how mad you were and ended up just as mad, but drunk, too? These songs provide exactly that kind of buzz.

There’s a powerful, surprisingly complicated interplay of emotional currents in these songs, so that even in the most overt party anthems (the Jay Reatard-ish “Let Me Freeze,” for instance) have a raw and wounded underbelly. That’s probably what makes them interesting, in a way that most 1960s-referencing garage rock is not. Mark Sultan breathes fire into genres that, in most hands, only gather dust. He’s learned to embrace his anger, and if that doesn’t save rock ‘n’ roll, it does at least make for a gripping take on it.

By Jennifer Kelly

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