Sean Altman: alt.mania

Sean Altman
Chow Fun

Years of experience singing a cappella have brought a feast of harmonic delights that grace the songs on this new and spectacularly melodic collection from former Rockapella co-founder Sean Altman. On this, his second solo release and first to feature full band accompaniment, Altman presents song after song of memorable tunes that feature clever, biting lyrics. It’s a big bunch of bitter that sounds sweet.

Altman updates the old-fashioned three-minute radio pop formula of yesteryear, wrapping pretty harmonies around verse, chorus and middle bridge, letting smart and acrid lyrics wend their way into your collective subconscious. The extra treat here is the sheer volume of memorable melodies to choose from; alt.mania is a veritable smorgasbord of Altman’s greatest hits . . . a very good thing.

Perhaps best known as co-author of the theme song from the children’s show Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?, Altman is no stranger to the pop/rock vernacular. His years performing, writing, and recording with Rockapella have served him well. After helping to build the group into one of the world’s premier contemporary a cappella groups, playing concerts with the likes of Billy Joel, Sting and Don Henley, releasing nine CDs and doing numerous commercials, Sean found it somehow unfulfilling.

In 1997, Altman quit Rockapella in order to explore a solo career in the world of power-pop. Sean explains: “Despite the nine albums, the critical acclaim, the sacks of cash, the mid-level TV celebrity and the thousands of adoring prepubescent groupies, my creative ego-muse hijacked my heart and ran amuck, with my brain and wallet in hot pursuit. I took my bat and ball and flew solo straight to career Burger King, where I’ll have it my way with extra ketchup for all eternity.”

Sean’s particular gift to create hook-laden pop was evident on his first CD, 1997’s SeanDEMOnium, an eclectic 30-track collection of home demos, short radio jingles and recorded humorous phone messages to clueless record label offices. Altman’s a cappella skills were also on display, as every musical sound on that CD was actually his voice.

That collection was long on ambition but a bit uneven in production values from track to track, and was all over the musical universe: in short, too many styles and too many songs. Still, it was an auspicious start to the burgeoning solo career, a great showcase for his golden voice and songwriting prowess.

Nearly five years later, we get the long-awaited follow-up, and it proves worth the wait. Where some critics may have attacked the unevenness of SeanDEMOnium, others might now find complaint with the slickness of alt.mania. This is polished pop with a high finished sheen, and the sound of the full band really adds a new level of professionalism to Altman’s music. At long last, the public gets to hear some of what sent Sean Altman his solo way those many moons ago, now fully realized.

Kudos should go to Billy Straus (production) and Andy Heermans (mixing) for making this seem anything but a first full-band effort. The “Full Muscular Band” features Matt Detro on guitar, Winston Roye on bass, and drums split between Tony James and Bob Golden. Sometime co-writer Noel Cohen and producer Billy Straus add guitars to certain tracks, and Lilith Fair’s Deni Bonet adds violin to one track, while Mike Pieck lends organ accompaniment to a few others.

The album opens with the Beatle-esque strings of “Dick About Me” (Stephen Day on cello, Alissa Smith on viola), an infectious diatribe against familiarity: “A twist’ll dim my light & I’ll glow sweetly / But screw me once too tight & I’ll blow completely / Whatever you know you think you see / Well you don’t know dick about me.” The formality of the strings presents a cheeky contrast to the breeziness of the subject matter.

Next up is “Daisy Simone” (which had appeared before in a cappella version on an old Rockapella release), a melodic ode to the futility of falling for a stripper. There’s a musical wink to Zeppelin here (all in context, of course) and Altman’s vivid wordplay keeps you expecting the unexpected: “She got Lady Godiva red hair & epidermis criminally pert / & I’m a button-nosed Boy Scout / My code of honor done turned to dirt / & when she flings her head her sweat drops strafe the back row / Extinguishing the burning issues of the day.”

“More in Hate with You” is a slow burn of a ballad that uses Squeeze-like octave-apart vocals to great effect. Altman’s penchant for creating catchy ones (okay, I’ll tell you up front — they’re all catchy) holds true as he relates the paradox of how thin the line is between love and hate: “What a shiny fine double-edged sword you turned out to be / That could bring me almost as much joy as misery / If I had you here I could just as well kiss you as run you through / ’cause I’m still in love but more in hate with you.”

If you really want to contrast the difference a band makes, Altman offers remakes of three songs from his first release. “Person” is another paean to bitterness over failed love, perhaps in Altman’s case referring to his own brief marriage and painful divorce (which seems to be an endless fount of creative inspiration). This amalgam of carnival imagery and sexual frustration recalls ’50s/’60s pop crooning and now sports even more harmonies propelled by a real rhythm section.

A staple from Altman’s live performance, the revisited “Are You a Man?” remains fairly true to its previous arrangement, only with a band now backing the up-front vocals that attempt to explain this complex gender to all and asks the musical question: “Is he just like everyone else’s man / a walking talking thinking gland?”

My favorite track from the first release is also given the upgrade treatment. “Presto-Change-o” remains strong as ever with its great shifting harmonies, but now features some really nifty guitar hooks as well. Topic-wise, it’s yet another variant on that “failed relationship thing” that fuels the majority of the songs on alt.mania (this one with a magic theme).

Altman has been a performer since his college days at Brown University (poly-sci major, I believe), where he first sang with David Yazbek (fellow pop wunderkind and composer for Broadway’s The Full Monty) in a Simon & Garfunkel-type duo called Moon Pudding. College also saw Altman fronting a new wave band called Blind Dates, while spending days as part of the a cappella group High Jinx (which later spawned Rockapella).

This past history is worth knowing, if only to give a sense that Altman is a musician who plays well with others, a key to the many collaborators he writes with (and part of the reason his music remains fresh from track to track). The new CD presents a healthy assortment of collaborations, including Sean’s version of “Unhappy Anniversary”, a song co-written with Noel Cohen that was recorded by Vitamin C. Once again, it’s lyrical “angst for the memories”, with a healthy dose of bitter bravado at this landmark post-rejection occasion. The other Noel Cohen-assisted composition, “If I Knew Then”, skirts Chris Isaak territory with its lonesome wistful landscape of singing guitars.

We get gently plucked violin strings and sweet falsetto vocals on “The Notion”, a song co-written with Michelle Albano that explores the power of ideas: “The notion of you is better than the real you / The fiction of you owns my heart / So the fact has got to go”. “Town No More” pairs Sean with co-writer Jian Ghomeshi of Moxy Fruvous fame in a hauntingly direct song about (surprise) the aftermath of a failed relationship.

In the final collaboration presented here, Altman and Andrew Chaikin explore the odd quirks of compromise in relationships with a chorus that’s almost a physics puzzler: “I’m not worthy of someone like you / I wish that I was, but I’m not so I got / To make do with someone unworthy of me / Who’s happy to be with a someone / Unworthy of someone like you.”

Again, the strength of the music and arrangements is not to be understated, as some of the newer tracks indicate. “Dandelion” ticks like a bomb in a soft verse, exploding into a chorus of harmonies and guitars and even sounds just the slightest bit like the old Rolling Stones’ “Dandelion” for a second before the middle bridge.

“Over & Done” is as radio-ready as a song can be, a bouncy reckoning after the fact: “Time I recognize what’s obvious to anyone & everyone who’s ever been oblivious or blind to the signs & every indication that it’s over, it’s over, it’s over, it’s over and done.”

If you thought harmonies and bitterness were the only tricks up this tall brazen lad’s sleeve, there’s also self-deprecation. “Too Old & Too Ugly” is a tongue-in-cheek assessment (with audience participation) of how the years can take their toll on one-time golden boys, done up in old-time sixties rock ‘n’ roll accompaniment (great guitar work by Matt Detro and nice bass line slide at song’s end by Winston Roye).

As on the first CD, the songs are broken up by shorter tracks of jingles, promo tags, mini-songs and song excerpts (some of which deserve full band treatment on the next CD, perhaps). All told it’s really quite a lot of quality music packed into one CD, but hang on — if you order now, you also get the bonus of a lengthy hidden track.

Hidden is a sweet acoustic song called “Sometime Before Tomorrow”, Sean’s own NYC taxicab “buckle up” message, and (as on the first CD) various personal phone messages that extend the graphic self-deprecation in a way that’s at once horrifying and fascinating, like an audio car wreck.

Let me mention a few other asides here: the CD art and cover feature Sean Altman’s head on several hopeful spermatozoa, as well as a fetal Sean playing guitar in utero. Some might find that humor off-putting, but if so, you’d be missing out on some very fine melodic music. Those looking for additional entertainment and information should check out the website (, wherein Sean trades on his unique mix of intelligence and male adolescent humor.

The site also lets you keep track of Sean Altman’s many performance activities: for instance, he is a regular performer at Joe McGinty’s “Loser Lounge” tribute series, where downtown musicians pay homage to popular musicians, and he also still has an a cappella group called The Groove Barbers. Should you wish, you can even arrange for a home concert, as Mr. Altman is doing this type of guerrilla marketing (as are many other indie bands), touring around solo to play for groups of interested fans.

If you’re a fan of music that lingers in your head and has you humming aloud, you’ll likely be a Sean Altman fan after listening to alt.mania. What’s nice about it is the wide variety (it really does seem like a “greatest hits”) and how everyone will tend to have different favorite songs.

For those who thought warm harmonies and catchy melodic music stopped decades ago, get the mania and be pleasantly surprised. Altman is the real deal, and with fine musicians around him, this CD validates the potential and transforms it into reality (bitter never sounded so sweet). While some pundits laughed when Altman abandoned success with Rockapella to pursue his own dreams, the talented Altman may yet have the last laugh.