Release Date: Jan 15, 2013
Record label: Free Energy
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
Free Energy's 2010 debut was a retro-rock memory of the Ford administration from Clinton-weaned indie-rock guys – like Thin Lizzy if they'd been influenced by Stephen Malkmus rather than vice versa. The follow-up moves the nostalgia dial to that hair-feathering, creepy tank-top-wearing end-of-the-Seventies moment when AOR rock, Cali soft rock, disco and New Wave melted into the same pot of fool's gold. Songs like "Dance All Night" and "Girls Want Rock" could get wink-wink annoying if they weren't so crisp and catchy, or if singer Paul Sprangers didn't convincingly sound like a neon-sweatband stud who has no idea that he's soon to be ground into cocaine traces by his rock & roll fantasy.
Go ahead, pull out that “More Cowbell” ’80s era t-shirt from the back of your closet because Free Energy is here to fill the bill as your newest retro-styled guilty pleasure. Along with cowbell, the quartet’s bell bottomed, skinny jean attack features chunky guitar riffs, singalong choruses, chanted backing vocals, thumping drums and a bunch of power popping songs about girls, girls and more girls. Producer John Agnello has established roots in this sound from his work with The Hooters, The Outfield and Scandal, but the slick varnish he slathers on doesn’t do this group any favors.
Free Energy have gotten off to a pretty charmed start as a group. They have been compared to Journey and their first release was produced by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. With these kinds of accolades and attention the first time around, there's sure to be some pressure for the Philadelphia group to build on that success for their sophomore effort.
After recording a debut album for DFA that ranged from exhilarating to a whole bunch of fun, Free Energy -- Philly’s answer to the common rock & roll complaint “they just don’t write ‘em like that anymore” -- switched labels and producers for their second effort, 2013’s Love Sign. Starting their own label wasn’t a bad idea at all, but going from James Murphy’s live-sounding, mistakes-and-all style to John Agnello's slick and precise corporate rock sound, drains much of the rambunctious joy out of the group’s retro-rock strut. Agnello got his start working with bands like the Hooters in the '80s and he and the band set out to create that kind of perfect airless sound, even going so far as to unapologetically say they were looking to capture the kind of drum sound one would hear on an Outfield record.
There’s no need to go into the perils of a sophomore album. We get it: It’s hard to follow up a popular debut. Yet this is something that didn’t really faze Free Energy and that’s quite clear with one listen through Love Sign. From the get-go, their follow up to 2010’s critically-acclaimed Stuck on Nothing eschewed any sort of expectations by dropping DFA Records, losing James Murphy at the console, and taking two calendar years to reach.
“Don’t wanna talk now,” sings Free Energy frontman Paul Sprangers on “Time Goes On,” engulfed in bar-rock guitar crunch, echoed by solar-eclipse harmonies. “Ain’t nothin’ new to you.” Sounds about right. This good-time Philly quintet made a splash with 2010’s Stuck on Nothing, their hooky, hammy, James Murphy-produced debut; but on Love Sign, “new” is the absolute furthest thing from their minds—these tunes are slicker, shinier, but also kinda stale.
Free Energy’s second album, Love Sign, is like a musical case study in middling power-pop. Like a lot of power-pop bands, Free Energy’s goal seems to be to put a smile on the listener’s face with catchy, hook-laden guitar rock. Their songs don’t have a lot of lyrical depth, but at least they have happy-sounding, mid-tempo guitar riffs. The band’s 2010 debut, Stuck on Nothing, won them a lot of critical acclaim for its combination of classic-style power-pop and infectious enthusiasm.
There's a commonly held belief that divisive art has to be doing something right, but that assumes a confrontational intent on behalf of the artist. As such, it does not account for a record like Free Energy's Love Sign. It's certainly difficult to imagine anyone being lukewarm about it: the Philadelphia band's unyieldingly and unrepentantly shiny, happy jukebox hero-rock either predates or ignores all tenets of punk, and if you hold certain indie ideals sacred, it is likely the antithesis of everything you want out of music.
This review originally appeared in AP 295. The term “party rock” has been ruined by LMFAO, who sure as shit never get played at our parties and definitely do not rock. Free Energy, on the other hand, might as well be the house band for any backyard get-together you’re looking to throw. On Love Sign, they make dual guitar leads, cowbell-laden drum tracks, handclaps and “whoa-oh” sing-alongs seem effortless, like some weird hybrid of Dinosaur Jr.
Last year, Free Energy frontman Paul Sprangers made it quite clear that the band’s sophomore effort wouldn’t try and pull any pretentious punches. “We have nothing to lose,” he said. “If it’s going to be big and dumb, it should be the biggest and dumbest it ever could be.” Indeed, the Philadelphia unit’s biggest asset has always been its addiction to meaty guitar hooks and ’70s scuzz—Stuck On Nothing, the band’s much-buzzed-about, James Murphy-assisted debut, was not so much a rock album as it was a nostalgic sugar rush.