Free Energy’s agenda is simple: to make some unabashedly catchy rock, and have a whale of a time doing it. Stuck on Nothing, their debut LP, was a great manifesto of everything the band stood for – dueling guitar solos, stamp-clap rhythms and teenage anthems of music, love, and revolution. With glossy production from James Murphy (DFA Records, LCD Soundsystem), the album burst with nods towards the classic rock canon – Free, Bad Company, Thin Lizzy, T. Rex and pretty much any other ‘70s rock band you can think of – but Paul Sprangers’ laid-back vocals gave it a homegrown edge that could only be found in today’s world of indie rock and independent labels.
Speaking of which – after releasing their debut, Free Energy left DFA to seek a new direction in their music, choosing to release their new album on their own label, Free People. And from the get-go, it’s clear that the band have done some rethinking when it comes to their sound; gone are the strings, the saxophones, and the tape delay that gave Stuck on Nothing its ‘70s sheen, with the band trading them in for some New Wave keyboards and piano instead. It makes it feel like they’re aiming for the power pop sound of the ‘80s, with influences from Cheap Trick and The Cars (the intro to “Girls Want Rock” sounds suspiciously like “My Best Friend’s Girl”) underlying the whole album. The cowbells and sizzling guitars are still there, but the focus has shifted slightly to a different decade.
Unfortunately, when listening, the word “generic” springs to mind. Power pop always has the danger of sounding too much like normal pop, and there are points on this album where you wonder what makes Free Energy different from all the tween pop we get on the radio. Indeed, for any power pop band to be remembered, they have to bring something new to the table; for Weezer, it was Rivers Cuomo’s knack for vocal melodies and original lyrics. For many one hit wonders, an inescapably catchy chorus did the trick. So what do these guys have?
Well, there are some great hooks, to be fair. “Electric Fever” launches the album into a fist-pumping anthem with some pounding power chords and cowbells (natch), and “Dance All Night” has a lovely piano-based chorus that soars above a swaying breeze of guitar arpeggios. But about half-way through the album, you start to think that maybe they’ve used some of these riffs and chord progressions already – that is, in the same album – and you beg for something different to leap out and grab your attention.
Sometimes the lyrics are enough to do that, with lines that make you double-take like “Well I feel so boss, yeah / Making out with your lipstick gloss”, or “She’ll burn a bridge, like ‘Whatever, man,’” where the awkwardly hip language seems to be used just for the fun of it. That, coupled with the tongue-in-cheek backing vocals and Paul Sprangers’ voice cracking on “Hangin’” and “Street Survivor”, makes you remember that these guys aren’t trying to sell out at all: they’re just your average guys, trying to live the dream and make it as a rock band. They’re playing this kind of music because it’s what they love, not because it’s commercial.
But whether it’s intentional or not, the fact remains that they just sound too much like generic pop rock to hold your interest for a full 40 minutes. The closer, “Time Rolls On”, is almost good enough to make up for the lull in the album, but it doesn’t change the fact that it feels like an awful long time getting to the end. Ultimately, Love Sign is the sort of album that makes you wish the band had stuck to their original formula; as much of a cop-out as it would have been, it was still ground less trodden than the style they went for instead.