To knowing rock critics, the couplet makes perfect sense. The Stripes are the White Stripes, a bracing minimalist rock act whose image and lyrics hint at a buried musical and sexual history far too intimidating for anyone committed to Daniel's small stakes. Har Mar, on the other hand, is Har Mar Superstar, a one-man band out of St. Paul, Minnesota, that plays more than just R&B. The car's driver chooses the latter, it seems, because Har Mar readily provides the kind of simple smirk that helps indie-rock kids settle for less.
"I don't know why they wrote any song," Har Mar -- Harold Martin Tillmann -- says with a pout from a tour stop in Detroit. (Tillmann recently canceled the last few stops on his Midwest run, including a January 31 gig at the Bottleneck, to prepare for a late-February run in California.) "I don't care. There's not really much that you could ask me that I wouldn't say 'I don't care' to, because I really don't give a fuck."
Not giving a fuck has been the gist of much great rock and roll. But unlike punk rockers and new wavers gone by, Tillmann doesn't belie his anomie with burning rage or freeze-dry it into an android stance. Instead, to quote "No Chorus" -- from his latest, You Can Feel Me -- he taps that healthy round ass, smugly playing a "playa" who's befuddled by the difference between sexy and sexist (just like Spinal Tap). Tillmann bristles at the suggestion that his act might be a joke: "I don't know where having a good time has to be a parody. Is that what you're getting at?"
For the most part, that seems to be what Tillmann himself is getting at. Built around squiggly electro beats that lie halfway between the hard, new-wave thump of Miss Kittin and the jittery futuristic funk of the Neptunes, Har Mar's two albums exploit a dance revival that connects everyone from underground club hoppers to TRL viewers. Yet the R&B lingo (Sexy lady, dis the haters/Cuz they ain't no players), the sex jokes (Deeper, deeper/I can feel your beeper) and fake African-American delivery are so blatantly overdone that they come off like the latest product of alt-rock's perpetual-irony machine. Mystikal or R. Kelly might be equally lascivious -- or, for that matter, equally absurd -- but their outrageousness works on a whole different level.
"Is that because they're black?" Tillmann asks. "I don't know why everyone thinks I'm making fun of something that I can do better than they can. Whatever. I listen to more R&B than anybody you know -- and that's what I make. I make that music because I like to, and I don't understand why people automatically think that I must be kidding."
Har Mar's shtick suggests that both he and his critics are right -- he does mean it, and he doesn't. Even so, there are moments when the stance seems powered by far uglier forces than the spinning magnets of homage and parody. That's especially true on Har Mar's eponymous 2000 debut, on which one lyric disses a girl's Tommy gear, and another lets a lover know "Girl, You're Stupid." Two years later, however, Tillmann has toned down the ugliness for You Can Feel Me.
"I don't know [if it's] tamer, but I think it's more of a pop record," Tillmann says. "I made [it] before I was on any major label. I do want to reach a larger audience. There are about 200 indie kids that are dying off in every major city, and I don't want to depend on them to pay my rent."
Actually, it's not even clear whose name would be on the lease. In the past, Tillmann has claimed to be the younger brother of Sean Tillmann, the leader of Sean Na Na, a group that trips through a library of hip rock styles in catchy songs with beguilingly nasty lyrics, often directed against women. It has since been revealed that the two Tillmanns are actually one and the same person, and Tillmann has stopped talking about his relation to Sean. Coincidentally (or not), Sean Na Na and Har Mar Superstar neatly complement each other's contempt; the latter, more popular group is especially suitable as an outlet for misogynist fantasies, which are, after all, prevalent in hip-hop and R&B.
It also provides Tillmann with a way to tap into the indie audience without offering any commitment of his own in return -- wham, bam, thank you, fans. Still, a quickie can sometimes be fun for everyone involved, and You Can Feel Me has its moments. Beth Ditto of the Gossip grounds the album by lending her Southern soul to two cuts, and Tillmann's undeniable craft at imitation comes alive on the last three tracks, one of which admits to more than just a passing interest in a female love object. It's a reminder that, at his best, the singer tills the outer reaches of a field first hoed by self-conscious white-boy goofs such as Beck and MC Paul Barman. (When Barman's name comes up, though, Tillmann will offer only, "If you can't say something good about somebody, don't say anything at all.")
In an e-mail exchange, Spoon's Britt Daniel steps to Tillmann's defense: "I chose Har Mar [for 'Small Stakes'] because I had just met [Tillmann], and I really liked him, both personally and as a performer -- and I needed something to rhyme with car. We played in Milwaukee on Thanksgiving Day last year, and we'd never met him, but he came to the show and brought us pumpkin pie."
That might be the only sweet thing about this dude.