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.