Free Energy - Love Sign

Rock critics aren’t really expected to be forecasters of popular taste. And thank fuck for that, because I’m goddam terrible at it. The one time I ever wrote anything for Gawker, here’s what I told them: “First things first: This Asher Roth album is going to sell. Sorry, kids… My guess is he sells 300K in his first week, at least. If a second single manages to stick, he’ll go platinum, easy.” Nope! In 2009, I saw the Rural Alberta Advantage play a SXSW showcase with Veckatimest-era Grizzly Bear and pre-Album Girls, and I walked away thinking to myself that the Rural Alberta Advantage were going to be huge. Nope! I mention these failure of prognostication because I’ve never been quite as certain of anything as I was that Free Energy were going to be a band that seized the popular imagination, shook it around, didn’t let go. Another SXSW night, I heard Free Energy’s “Bang Pop” for the first time, saw them bang it out directly in front of my face, and I resigned myself to the fact that I’d hear it 50 bazillion more times. That one actually did come to pass, but only because I fucking love that song and I keep playing it. It wasn’t a hit. Their really great debut album Stuck On Nothing wasn’t a hit. And now that they’ve got a new album, Love Sign, James Murphy isn’t producing them anymore, and they’re no longer on DFA. They’re self-releasing the album. I don’t know what happened. It shouldn’t have happened.

Here’s what I love about Free Energy, and what might be making things difficult for them commercially: They make rock music that functions as dance music. Weird to think now, but that used to be one of the main points of the music. These days, rock music is music for playing in the background while you’re on the internet, or for driving fast, or for contemplating late capitalism’s slow encroachment on our shared imagination. It’s not made for dancing. And when it is, when rock bands play around with the idea of moving bodies, they’re importing their dance-music stuff from other genres: House music thumps, disco drama-dynamics, Afrobeat ripple-into-infinity rhythms. But Free Energy are all riffs and claps and oohs and guitar-solo wheedles. It’s all rock music, all descended directly from T. Rex or the Cars or Bachman-Turner Overdrive or Thin Lizzy or Tom Petty when he’s at his sauciest. And all those ingredients are put in the service of momentum, of shimmy. The hooks don’t exist to help us understand the ideas the band wants to express; they exist to be hooks. Maybe that seems frivolous or silly or even gimmicky; the band might be marginalizing themselves by projecting images as shop-class stoners from ’80s comedies. But I find something almost moving in their dogged pursuit of the pleasure principle. They’re making deliriously fun rock music in an era when that’s apparently just not what people want, and there’s something beautifully quixotic about that.

Love Sign works in much the same way that Stuck On Nothing did. It’s the Van Halen II to that album’s Van Halen, or the Candy-O to its The Cars. There are a few new elements, like the riotous horn bursts on “Time Rolls On.” “Street Survivor” even has a bit of quicksilver Afropop guitar, though the song is still way more Cheap Trick than Paul Simon. The band continues to studiously avoid any hint of subtext; the slowest and prettiest song is the one called “Dance All Night,” and it’s about dancing all night. And what sticks with me is the insane precision here: Every cowbell thunk, every gang-whoa backing vocal, every bit of manicured feedback is exactly where it belongs. There’s no fat or filler anywhere; it keeps you moving from one dizzy hook to the next with breathtaking efficiency. Maybe that sounds antiseptic and lab-created, and maybe it is, but it doesn’t feel that way. Instead, it’s all starry-eyed exhilaration, the songs conveying the sort of joyous abandon that’s obviously exactly what they were going for. It’s a straight-up blast, an album you’re singing along with the second time you hear it.

I’m probably overselling how under-appreciated this band is, but music like this takes serious work and intelligence. They must’ve rewrote and rearranged these songs a million times, until they knew they were getting maximum impact out of every hook. It all works. And in the rare occasion that a band puts in that kind of effort and actually hits all its marks, we should be noticing. We should be celebrating it. Love Sign is an album worth celebrating.

Love Sign is out now on the band’s own Free People label. Stream it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• A$AP Rocky’s flamboyant, expensive style-rap opus Long.Live.A$AP.
• Yo La Tengo’s warm, expansive, shatteringly pretty Fade.
• Former Girls frontman Christopher Owens’s disconcertingly lush and chintzy solo debut Lysandre.
• Pantha Du Prince’s tingly, gorgeous ding-and-thump collaboration Elements Of Light.
• Califonia X’s pummeling, ragged, life-affirming self-titled punk debut.
• The self-titled debut from Sean Lennon and Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier’s new skronk-rock project Mystical Weapons.

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Comments (72)
  1. I would have just picked an album from next week for this week… — Nah, I’m just messing with you.

    This is a well deserved AOTW. I don’t know what happened either with why Free Energy somehow found themselves seemingly in limbo without a label (maybe that’s they wanted it, who knows…) but I do know they make really well put-together pop rock and Love Sign is a very solid body of work.

    Speaking of bodies, their new video for “Girls Want Rock” came out today as well, and credit goes to where credit is due — Those dudes look pretty fit by the looks of them in swim suits. I would not want to be a guy standing next to Paul Sprangers with or without my clothes on.

    My heart for this week’s AOTW ultimately goes out to my area code 413 punks in Amherst, MA, though, with California X’s debut — They totally hack away the cheap obligatory Dinosaur Jr. comparisons with a tank full of pop metal and slicked up tunefulness that crosses over territories outside of ’90s indie fuzz.

  2. I appreciate that you’re showcasing an album from an underappreciated band, but why not even a mention of Dawn Richard? Women artists have been underrepresented in R&B coverage on this site (and most others) and Goldenheart is a great record. She should be acknowledged, at the very least.

  3. Can’t wait to hear the whole album, these guys kick ass. Wanna hate A$AP but feel like it’s actually probably great, and Fade, the one album I listened to you mention, makes me want to hug Yo La Tengo.

    • Tom, your first mistake was writing for Gawker.

    • The main problem with LONGLIVEA$AP is that it’s POORLY sequenced. It feels like a slapped together mixtape. Also, it getting delayed until January 2013 hurts since a lot of the lyrics seem very 2012.

      Before I list my complaints, know that I bought the deluxe version on CD yesterday because as a single compilation, it bangs. I have a “Fuckin’ Problem” problem, can’t stop listening. Not to mention I will be quoting that Kendrick line about girls wanting dick. Pointless to quote it since its impact is in the delivery.

      OKAY COMPLAINTS:

      – “Goldie” in the single slot on the album. I wore this song thin banging Stereogum’s Cruel Summer mixtape half a year ago. It definitely deserves to be included on the album, but would’ve been better farther down the tracklist. I obviously think “Fuckin’ Problems” should’ve been track #2

      – Only two Clams Jams. Not to mention they’re placed right next to each other. Clams Casino made A$AP Rocky as far as I’m concerned. So don’t follow up the only two Clams Jams on yr album with the Wannabe-Wish-I-Was-A-Clams-Jam track “Pain” . Just get “Pain” off this album entirely.

      – “Suddenly” is a shit closing track. (Deja vu complaints!)

      – Should’ve included “I Come Apart” with Florence Welch in the official tracklisting. That song is good stuff. Ladies love Florence!

      –Rocky gets out rhymed by basically every guest rapper on this album.

      All that being said, the highs are pretty high. Danger Mouse gets the award for best production for “Phoenix” — that song takes me back to “Demon Days” Gorillaz. Also, is that Bobby Womack sampled in “Phoenix” ? I dunno, but “Phoenix” rules and should’ve closed out the album.

      Even though it’s only two Clams Casino beats, Rocky prooves that he is a perfect match. The sooner those two put out a record together the better. The Sooner the better. Actually, as soon as possible. ASAP. A FUCKING SAP.

      tl;dr “A$AP Rocky’s flamboyant, expensive style-rap opus” (Tom nailed it in a sentence)

      • Sick RJ, don’t even have to listen to it now! Nah this actually made me wanna check it out more. Not gonna lie, I’m turned off that he hired a grab bag of “in” people like Florence Welch and Skrillex to help with this album. Your comment comin thru remindin me “it’s all about the music brah.”

        You guide my journey, you give me light.

  4. I really want to like this record. I can tell that it’s fun, well written, and groovy, but there’s just something about it that falls flat for me. I like that rock music still exists that doesn’t deal with “heavy themes.”

    I guess, though, there’s nothing about Free Energy for me to hang onto. I feel like all these songs have been written thousands of times before. The only one I can hear myself going back to is “Street Survivor.”

  5. I can’t quite agree with the idea that Free Energy are somehow being unorthodox by crafting hooks for the sake of hooks. For what other sake are hooks crafted? I think that argument actually speaks to why I find these guys so uninteresting; to play music is a joy. To listen to music is a joy. These things I hold to be true. To play music that is only about how playing music is a joy seems to me like a missed opportunity to add dimension. (I understand a lot of great music is about this, but the stuff I personally return to the most has some other aspect to latch onto.) The Mountain Goats play joyful music; that their songs can also challenge and shake you is a testament to their craft. So, a band like this, while you might waste five pleasant minutes on them, will never move you in the way as a band that goes beyond that structurally intrinsic joy.

    • This is the complaint I always used to have about Jurassic 5, it’s like instead of rapping about how cool and authentic you are why don’t you illustrate it?

      I’d also counter though, that this is the kind of music that invites the listener in for many non-intimidating, accessible listens. Just cus there’s not a lot there doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to keep going back to it. It really depends on what kind of listener you are – a lot of people would find The Mountain Goats harder to go back to than a band like this.

  6. So I listened to a couple of these songs, but like others have said they were pretty unsatisfying. It made me really want to listen to Jail Break by Thin Lizzy. Somehow that is way more satisfying.

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  8. I don’t understand these people. Do you all just not like having fun? Ok, so it’s not some insightful masterpiece that will change your life. Doesn’t mean it’s not an incredibly fun album.

    • I said something along these lines in the JT post and I’ve given it some more thought.

      There is some pretty great, heady, dark and definitely NOT fun music out that is REALLY good. For a lot of people, fun music doesn’t vibe. There are a lot of people, maybe even on this site, that aren’t having fun times in life. So maybe the last thing they want to hear is fun music that sounds as foreign as a K-Pop song.

      Literally right now I’m jamming on that new Burial 12″. I wouldn’t label his music as fun, even though I have a great time listening to it. The beauty of music is that it can appeal to a wide range of people through various emotions. I guess it SHOULDN’T surprsie us that not everyone is game for a straight up FUN album (or a fun JT song for that matter).

      We got to remember it is in the dead of winter. Depression sticks its ugly head out during these months… I think it’s why people are more accepting of a FUN record come summer time (Think Japandroids last year). So even if this Free Energy album is a fun record, maybe January wasn’t the best release date for it.

      • These are good points. Another point: so much art has been made. So much. There is so much fun art out there with some additional meat on its bones. Olivia Tremor Control, for example! Literally, if you spent your entire life trying to, you’d never hear all the fun and yet rich and complicated music in the world. So, even if this is fun, is that enough to demand (scarce) time and money?

        • I see what you’re saying, but really, I don’t think emotional depth is a requirement for good music, and there’s been some absolute classics that are just about dancing and having fun. James Brown or Daft Punk don’t tend to have songs with much lyrical depth, but they’re still cherished by a whole lot of people. If you aren’t one of those people then fine, but it’s not something new.

      • Yeah, I see what you mean. Though sometimes when I’m bummed out, a really fun album can make me feel better. Or I’ll listen to something dark even though I’m feeling positive, like how I got into a whole ton of Metal last summer.
        My issue isn’t really that as much as it is the people saying that it’s not worth listening to because it isn’t deep or profound or something along those lines. To be honest, I don’t care much about lyrics to begin with, but music about how great it is to be dancing and/or making music is a pretty common thing. I mean, that’s basically half of James Brown’s songs, and people still think of him as an incredible singer and bandleader.
        I agree with you on the summer thing though, this is an album for the summertime. Reminds me of Cut Copy which also had a winter release date, and which I only started getting into much later in the year. Except Free Energy aren’t from Australia.

        • I can’t agree more. At this point of winter here in New England, I’m starting to yearn for something to combat the lack of vitamin D, cold scenery and loneliness of the season, and this is just what I needed. What also perplexes me is that if Free Energy were not an a former indie buzz band who have friends in critically adored bands like Titus Andronicus, would the criticism and outrage be any different? I mean, Ke$ha and Taylor Swift are fun, dumb forms of pop music that has an excellent execution of hook and craft which even indie elitists subscribe their enjoyment to, so why is Free Energy being ridden so hard for doing something similar with their ’70s rock glide?

          Pitchfork’s 3.6 review of the album baffles because I don’t think this album is necessarily a huge departure from the songs on their debut (which got an 8.1), leading me to believe if James Murphy’s name was credited as producer on this go, it’d be at minimum a 7.0 for that factoid alone. That’s Ian Cohen for you, though — Whenever they want to break the credibility of an ex-buzzy indie rock band, they send him in with a review.

          • Ian Cohen didn’t write the review for Stuck on Nothing

          • I don’t think it matters if it’s two different writers in this instance, and it’s also tiring to hear people stand up for Pitchfork by citing that the review doesn’t reflect on them but rather just the author. Any good, large critic site should be consistent in their endorsement or objections to a band when the band’s sound hasn’t changed too drastically from one album to the next within a span of two – three years. The polar opposite scores between Free Energy’s debut and sophomore effort is confusing from my vantage point.

          • It’s cold outside in Germany, too, that’s why I’m listening to the new Toro Y Moi album via P4K Advance. It’s not only extremely good but also keeps my body warm because it makes me want to shake my booty all the time. The D in Vitamin D stands for DANCE!

          • Completely agree with the James Murphy factor.

            “No James Murphy?! MINUS POINTS!” ~p4k

            I feel they did the same thing with The Rapture, because “Pieces of the People We Love” is a fantastic album. But alas, no James Murphy production.

          • Who is this ominous writer Bylan Cohen, anyway?

            http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/17530-love-sign/

          • the D is for Donny

          • Saying that a “large critic site should be consistent in their endorsement or objections to a band…etc.” seems like saying “everyone who works at this publication should think the same way about the same music” or “the same writer should continue to review the same band.” I don’t really think that either is a good thing. Though I understand the point that these writers represent the larger entity of the site they publish for, I like the idea of the author/critic having as much autonomy as he/she can. Ian Cohen shouldn’t be kicked off the Free Energy assignment b/c he has a different opinion than the reviewer of Stuck On Nothing. Nor should he be told he needs to give it a certain rating, good or band.

            I agree that there is something valuable to consistency, but I think that it’s best for critic sites that there be a variety of opinion even at the sake of consistency (not saying P4K is the best at that by any means.)

            Also, you must be reading different blogs than me. I guess I only check Stereogum with any frequency, but I never “hear people stand up for Pitchfork.” I’m happy to be a bit of an apologist for Pitchfork simply because people rag on it sooooo much. I think P4K is a decent site, and I find a lot of good music there. It certainly has its faults, but good lord people attack it like crazy. I guess there’s some value, on a political level, in attacking the dominating institutions in an industry…

            Also, I know I’m not gonna get much love for this, but Ian Cohen is not a monster. This comment section is livid. I can’t detect anything in his writing that’s particularly bitter, snobbish, or tasteless. He can be very critical at times…but he’s a critic. Critics shouldn’t be afraid to say what they will because it’s going to hurt somebody’s feelings or get the readership in an uproar.

      • I don’t agree.

    • Being fun isn’t an automatic qualifier for being good. I mean, hell, look no further than the band that shares the same name with your incredibly insightful use of the word “fun” twice as some kind of justification to the merits of the music. Maybe some people think it’s a stale and uninteresting album.

    • Maybe they were looking for a Fun. album.

  9. i can’t tell the difference between this and OK Go or Rooney

  10. The thing about this is that it just seems so, you know, I mean, kinda, sorta, whatever, riiight? You want fun garage indie rock check King Tuff and Nude Beach.

    • For me, although I enjoy the King Tuff album a lot (haven’t heard Nude Beach yet, but want to), it’s couched in that sort of lo-fi garage revival that is considered “cool.” This album is so dorky and glossy and stridently uncool, that it becomes a sort of selling point in and of itself. I gain no social currency from enjoying this album. But fuck social currency. I’m too old for that shit.

      • Honestly, who gives a shit. It is music. To have opinions on what it is, or should be is fucking stupid. If it evokes emotion out of you then rockthefuckoutofit. I just don’t really like that Stereogum when presenting this band’s recent stuff have seemed like a homer. Telling me it’s the tits. Give me the product and maybe slyly tell me an opinion, not an outright approval of it. Then again, it is a great way for a site with hella page views to create a polarizing site, hence, producing more page views. So, success?

      • That King Tuff s/t is in no way lo-fi. It just doesn’t sounds like it was produced by Dr. Luke like this does.

        • Well, no, it’s a nice sounding album, you’re right. But it falls squarely into a scene (Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin). It has cache. These dudes HAD cache (James Murphy, DFA), but without cache, they’re just a bunch of frigging Spacehog revivalists. Now I happen to think that’s a pretty great thing, but without any cache and any discernable depth, they will not win with critics.

  11. I wonder if they had BTO’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” when they wrote/recorded the opening track.

  12. Great write up Tom, this album is great. And jesus, Ian Cohen is a douche.

  13. The issue is not that the band is “fun” or lacks depth. Like other people have said, there is plenty of great music out there that is fun and not particularly deep (someone mentioned Daft Punk, James Brown, etc). The issue is that this sounds 100% unoriginal, almost aggressively so. Daft Punk, James Brown, Japandroids, [insert your favorite "fun" band here], all have their own unique vision of fun. This is a deliberate attempt to recreate 70s/80s radio rock.

    • Why is this an issue?

      • Sometimes I think that it is, usually after reading a chapter of Retromania. But if it’s an issue, it’s one that happens all over indie rock, just look at bands like Twin Shadow or LCD Soundsystem. The indie rock world is just full of musicians that are unoriginal yet really good at what they do, and I tend to just enjoy the bands while whining about the larger trend.

  14. The thing about this album is that any criticism you level at this album I probably agree with (the Pitchfork review isn’t necessarily wrong), but I’m liking it in spite of myself. It’s a bad, lowbrow comedy, that I enjoy anyway. I mean, if you love this album, you point to bands like Cheap Trick, The Cars, Sloan and good Weezer, but if you hate this album, you could just as easily go with Third Eye Blind, OK Go, Blessed Union Of Souls and bad Weezer. Both would be right. Love Sign is a really dumb album that sounds like some of my least favorite music from the 90s – but I like it anyway. The hooks are so big, dumb and glossy that I can’t help but be drawn to listen to it in spite of having an infinite amount of reservations about why I shouldn’t like it.
    So yeah. This album is anathema for Pitchfork and probably many more music critics who require substance and “meaning” from their music (look at the original Pitchfork reviews for I Get Wet and Discovery), but it’s a useless life if you can’t defy critical consensus every once in a while. Go ahead. Embrace a bad album. It doesn’t hurt.

    • I recently spent some time reading Pitchfork reviews from the mid-2000s, and in hindsight, I fully understand why they still today find themselves in the position as a punchline in the critical landscape. Back then, the bad reviews were just so over the top and lacked maturity in their takedowns — no better than a comment section rant — while the good albums were verbose for the sake of.

      The writers now are much more smart in their execution, but there’s still Ian Cohen who gets himself into trouble with sounding more catty and damning than calculatingly thoughtful during his low score reviews.

  15. The 3.6 pk4 gave renders the comment section for this irrelevant now. It’s a fun album, period. Not gonna break new ground, but seriously why does every album have to again? Chromeo is fun, Ariel Pink, Cloud Nothings, Cults, the freakin entire last Girls album, Toro Y Moi, Twin Shadow….we can go on, they are all blatant rip offs from past decade sounds and these guys all do it with great respect and with an unabashed tip to the cap toward all influences. If you base your musical picks solely on what one writer says, then man….bigger problems are probably going along with your tunnel vision. Go get this album, smoke a bone and bob your head for cryin out loud. My brain loves the rest it gets while my headphones are playing this.

  16. I’m loving this record! How can you not? I actually think it’s a big improvement on “Stuck on Nothing”. I’m not sure what Ian Cohen’s deal is. He doesn’t like them because their not “punk”? Yeah, it’s nothing new, but what the fuck were you expecting Ian?

    Guitar music can be fun too. What’s so wrong with that? People shouldn’t immediately dismiss this kind of stuff because either a) it’s not “groundbreaking” or b) it doesn’t have a Pitbull guest verse in it. Enjoy it for what it is!

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  18. Not digging this record at all. These songs just seem so generic with no emotion. I’m not sure why this is getting praise while other bands (blink182, jimmy eat world, third eye blind) get shunned by the ‘indie’ community. I dont particularly love those bands but I dont understande the distinction between this and them.

    • Welp, first I wouldn’t worry about the “indie community” says or thinks because, on the whole, they ain’t that bright. My question wouldn’t be “why these guys and not them?” but simply “why not them?” I’ve never been a Third Eye Blind fan (who Free Energy most definitely sound like) and I haven’t cared about Jimmy Eat World since the Bleed American days, but it is a worthwhile question to wonder how and why these guys got pushed out the “cool” door. There are a million bands out there that I find to be vapid, but why is self-conscious vapidity the only kind that gets called out?

  19. Finally figured out the key to these guys’ appeal for me — they’re like the aural equivalent of the show Workaholics, and they remind me of what I figure Corban was like based on his old picture.

  20. I have to say, I kind of agree with P-fork on this one – not that this is a bad album by any means (3.6 is ridiculous), but the California X album is a LOT better.

  21. I’m liking this. I would probably classify this a harmless instead of fun. It reminds me a lot of Stroke 9.

  22. Didn’t MPP come out in January? That melted my winter pretty fast…and my face…and my mind…and my roommates minds and basically I don’t remember 2009.

  23. The “Don’t you like to have fun?” argument has gotten way too old. Just because you don’t like peppy classic rock rewrites about hanging with your buds doesn’t mean you “don’t like fun.” There is more than one way to have fun; what’s fun for one person isn’t necessarily fun for another. Personally, the most fun listening experience I’ve had so far this year was with Four Tet’s new “0181″ release, and that bears a closer resemblance to fucking Burial than it does to this thing.

  24. I’m looking forward to next week’s AOTW……I’d be shocked if it’s not the new Foxygen record. It’s like a lost psych gem from 1967.

  25. couldn’t disagree more, absolute shit band

  26. Tom, if you like this album, you’re going to flip out when you hear John Cougar Mellencamp.

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