Fans of Har Mar Superstar's more traditional funk/soul output may be thrown for a bit of a loop with Best Summer Ever. Frontman Sean Tillman's vintage influences remain represented, but the album eschews his robust horn arrangements for bouncy synth-pop elements a stone's throw away from Apples in Stereo--maybe a little less precious, but still far more whimsical than what many might have come to expect. But the record is less indicative of a departure than it is an evolution. In an age when soul music is experiencing something of a renaissance through contemporary interpretations, Har Mar Superstar's latest effort illustrates that artists can espouse the ethos of soul without simply reanimating it. He can pay homage to the past without neglecting the present.
The marriage of modern and classic is apparent from the outset, on the opener "I Hope," in which Tillman's evocative crooning is buoyed by a swirling, dreamy electronic mock-orchestral arrangement. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the beginning of the record skews more noticeably toward the present than the past. "Youth Without Love" is a playful electro-pop song that shifts gears somewhat with a soulful chorus, but even then instrumentally it remains surprisingly quirky. "Anybody's Game" rounds out an opening trio of youthfully vibrant and bouncy tracks, even in spite of its reliably irreverent lyrics (Tillman eagerly sings "Everybody comes" in a not-so-thinly veiled play on words). The juxtaposition of the rich vocals against the dainty keyboard background, however unexpected, fits in comfortably with the deadpan sense of humor employed by the band.
"How Did I Get Through The Day," the undeniable stand-out from the record, indicates a return to form for the rest of the release, which sounds more like the Har Mar Superstar fans have come to love. The song is pure classic Sam Cooke soul, a sock-hop slow dance that trades soft rock guitar for an increasingly untethered bed of electronic organ that ends in a frayed and warbly but emotionally fraught tangle of sounds. It is arguably Har Mar's finest song to date--timeless and undeniably stunning. "Haircut" is a worthy follow-up as a Mo-Town throwback dripping with sex and attitude. Tillman flaunts the ways he can turn you on even in a lyrically silly composition--one that ends with the artist listing hairstyles from jerry curls to the mohawk. The track is perhaps the best example of his attention to detail. About halfway through, before the song cruises to its climax, a chorus is punctuated by a pause-givingly provocative whoop from a female backing vocalist. The little hand-claps and giggles occurring throughout the background of the song make for a product with all the precision of a pointillist painting. With these two powerhouse tracks, the album could have been filled out with just about anything and it still would have emerged a worthy listen.
But, of course, Tillman has no interest in phoning it in on his first release since 2013. "It Was Only Dancing (Sex)" does the post-disco early-80s dance track better than Eddie Murphy every did. "My Radiator" is a tragically short but addicting, blown-out early rock-and-roll ditty that commands multiple listens to satiate. And "Famous Last Words" is an off-the-rails party anthem at the intersection of punk and electro-pop and soul and rock-and-roll. It's in-your-face in a welcoming sort of way, pulling you in by the lapels to join the dance.
Best Summer Ever is Har Mar Superstar's most diverse record to date, and thus maybe not the most cohesive. But it's rare to come across an album in which so many of the tracks are capable of earning single status. It's accessible without sacrificing the wildness and weirdness that make this band so remarkable. It's hard to imagine Tillman disappointing us when he's so clearly committed to his craft.
The Pair to Start With: How Did I Get Through The Day?, Haircut