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September 30, 2005

Funny-bitter songs score for ex-Rockapella front man

Daily Record (NY):

As a college student in the 1980s, Sean Altman always had some music gig going - with his a cappella group, his rock band, his jazz duo, whatever. "All I did at Brown was sing in various groups and put up posters for the performances of those groups," he said. Classmates remember him as the guy with "a handful of posters and a big staple gun."

It's not much different today. Altman, founder and former leader of the popular a cappella group Rockapella, still performs in a bewildering variety of formats. He will appear solo Saturday at the Watchung Arts Center. At other times he can be seen with a full rock band, with an a cappella quartet and in a Jewish comedy duo, but most of his performances these days are solo.

"The economics of it are such that most of the time I can't afford to get anyone else to the gig except for me," he said by phone from California, where he had a couple of dates booked. "There's an intimacy to solo shows that can't really be matched," he said. "It's more about my songs and my voice, and less about the bombastic sound of the big band."

On his solo CDs, "Seandemonium" and "alt.Mania," Altman serves up "happy melodies and sad, bitter lyrics," a combination that gives the songs several layers. A line like "I'm still in love, but more in hate with you," makes you think twice about what at first sounds like just a catchy tune. Yet he's often funny about how miserable he is, which gives the songs yet another twist. Not to mention his virtuoso one-man-vocal-group singing style.

"I'm genetically blessed with a good ear for harmony," he said. Altman's melodic yet muscular pop-rock is reminiscent of the 1980s New Wave era -- the "Elvis Costello/Squeeze/XTC school of pop songwriting," he said. "When I started writing songs more in that style, it didn't necessarily work well with Rockapella," he said. "That's one of the reasons I left the group."

Altman and three fellow Brown graduates formed Rockapella in 1986, graduating from singing for quarters on the streets of New York City to weddings and bar mitzvahs. Members came and went, until an appearance on a TV special hosted by Spike Lee led to an offer from PBS. The group then spent five years performing daily on the children's game show "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?"Altman and a friend also wrote the addictive theme song.

One member's contacts in Japan led to a recording contract. The group toured Japan twice a year and put out eight albums there between 1991 and 1996. "That was an enormous kick in the pants for all of us to start writing songs," he said. "I credit that Japanese record deal with making me into a working songwriter." His sensibility was always a bit darker and more sarcastic than Rockapella's family image called for. A brief, ill-fated marriage apparently gave him plenty of inspiration for his work, which he called "twisted love songs sung with a smile. It's a whole bunch of bitter that goes down really good."

Altman left Rockapella in 1997, reasoning that he was "still young enough to give this a go as a solo act." (The group continues to record and perform with new members.) He hasn't lost his knack for a cappella music, though. He and several other ex-Rockapella members perform occasionally as the GrooveBarbers. "We do only a handful of shows a year," he said. "It's a way for me to keep my love of a cappella going."

In another incarnation, he and and rock journalist Rob Tannenbaum perform as a duo called What I Like About Jew. "We do very raunchy Jewish-themed comedy songs," he said. He's also part of a recurring series of tribute concerts in New York called Losers Lounge. A collective of 30 or 40 musicians gets together every few months to perform the songs of a single composer. They've done Elton John, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Carole King and numerous others. As a result, he said, "I've amassed remarkable collection of good quality live recordings of me singing some of these great songs." They're now available on CD as "Losing Streak." "It highlights me as a singer more than me as a songwriter,"he said. "In that respect it's a pleasant break for me."

But his priority is his own songs. He's working on two solo albums, one of more bittersweet power pop songs, the other of quirky comedy songs. One of his best efforts, "Unhappy Anniversary," was covered by pop singer Vitamin C on her platinum debut album for Elektra. "I find that audiences of most ages can relate to what I'm doing," he said. "I think of myself as a 17-year-old with a 30-year-old's vocabulary. I'm hoping it's a good mixed bag of people that comes out."

Posted by acapnews at September 30, 2005 12:38 AM