Back in the seventies, every small town in America had a band like Free Energy. They were typically made up of four or five guys, knew three or four chords, and played music that sounded best blasting out of a Trans-Am’s cassette deck on its way to a beer run. And if they were lucky, they scrounged up enough money to buy a cowbell
Free Energy’s 2010 debut album, Stuck On Nothing, was produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, who gave it a warm, retro sheen and instant hipster cred. The follow-up, Love Sign, is overseen by John Agnello, who’s worked with Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth—so the guitars are more prominent this time, and so are the hooks. If the Philadelphia quintet wanted to be The Cars on Stuck On Nothing, it’s aiming for Cheap Trick on Love Sign.
Free Energy is a band that champions classic, no fuss rock ‘n’ roll — the stuff that greases the heart and plays specifically to that youthful idealism that tends to die sometime after (or during) college. This isn’t some wild, elusive secret they hold, either. Indeed, a slight glance at their latest tracklist, which brandishes titles like ‘Girls Want Rock’, ‘Dance All Night’, ‘Hold U Close’, and ‘Time Rolls On, offers all the insight you would gain from the album
That proud kind of rock ‘n’ roll hardly exists anymore - or, at least not successfully. Such acts are usually filed aside as a gimmick or something even worse, which obviously presents some risks. Singer Paul Sprangers, however, couldn’t care less. Here’s what he said about Love Sign earlier this year: “Everything is much more clear and amplified. The rock songs are dumber and bigger. Like, fuck it, we have nothing to lose. If it’s going to be big and dumb, it should be the biggest and dumbest it ever could be.” Now, Love Sign isn’t exactly big and dumb, but it’s not too far off. None of these songs have much to say (seriously, sit back and actually listen to ‘Hangin’); instead, they’re chewy pieces of bubble gum rock ‘n’ roll, and as sticky as the stuff that mucked up their debut’s album cover. Why does this work then? It all comes down to something as simple as heart
Unlike other modern bands that play around with ’70s sounds, Free Energy is totally sincere about its facial hair and Thin Lizzy-style double-guitar lines. Singer Paul Sprangers doesn’t have a particularly strong or distinctive voice; he’s as faceless as any vocalist who fronted a barely famous group back when Cheap Trick At Budokan topped the charts. And the band doesn’t have pricey studio tools at its disposal. But it has plenty of meaty hooks
From the cowbell-powered opener ‘Electric Fever’ to the handclap frenzy of ‘Girls Want Rock’ to the dance shuffle of ‘Street Survivor’, Love Sign is a power-pop throwback that’s entertaining as well as indistinctive. Where else could listeners find multiple “whoa-oh” group sing-alongs alongside chunky guitar riffs straight out of the Jimmy Carter era delivered with such earnestness? Besides the Jimmy Carter era, that is
But it’s not all sticky fun and games. The Springsteen-sized epic piano ballad ‘Dance All Night’ sounds way too ambitious and out of place among the album’s other bite-size nuggets, and a handful of songs haul out the cowbell and two-guitar attack when they don’t have much else to say or do
“All those nights, all those years, time goes on,” Sprangers pleads repeatedly on album closer ‘Time Rolls On’. It’s elementary poetry best served on construction paper, but there’s just so much conviction selling it. That’s how Free Energy comes out on top. Sprangers’ melodies overwhelm with flavour and it’s because of his natural tenor that he’s able to get by with such banner-friendly lyricism
He’s not without his teammates, though. Similar to Stuck on Nothing, a frantic supply of guitar work rotates here. Lead guitarist Scott Wells and the band’s latest rhythm guitarist Sheridan Fox tie-dye enough riffs to keep things fresh, especially with the Bachman-Turner Overdrive reboot of ‘Electric Fever’, the galloping progress of ‘Hey Tonight’, and the spine-tingling palm muting of ‘Street Survivor’. The two also know when to dial things down, as heard on both ‘Dance All Night’ and ‘Time Rolls On’, where they allow the keys or horns to breathe and float about, respectively. Also, the way drummer Nicholas Shuminsky yanked the cowbell back from Will Ferrell for the early-bird summer anthem ‘Backscratcher’ is simply cookie dough ice cream-sort of crazy
Love Sign isn’t all that different than what shaggy-haired kids were playing at their local live-music clubs circa 1979. It’s a record that never tries to be anything more than a fun rock ‘n’ roll adventure. Sure, it’s big and dumb, but it’salways enjoyable, and that’s the catch. Of all the greatest rock albums of the past year or two, few work off that jovial mentality, which says too much about the genre. What Free Energy prove is that you don’t need to have a drinking problem or a sweeping existential crisis to make great, timeless rock ‘n’ roll. By Spranger’s standards, you just need to follow your heart — and yank it back from girls named Hailey. The rest is for the long nights that keep on coming
And they always will
Buy it here
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