Free Energy Free EnergyStuck On Nothing
Sometimes, Murphy’s Law gets broken, and the buttered side of the toast fortunately doesn’t land on the floor. Free Energy knows this very well. To try their luck, they started to send demos to James Murphy, and it turns out that the master of DFA, familiar with Hockey Night (the band that the singer and guitarist came from), answered them, and decided to produce their debut album. The Philadelphia group rubbed their hands together and, with Murphy’s help, gave form to an album that they are as happy as clams with. They say that in the latest SXSW they were even smiling at the rubbish bins, maybe because the worldwide indie webzine received them with its congratulations... So with the support of a label that was theoretically out of their reach, these guys are over the moon. And their proposal, an a priori winner, is nothing to write home about: a revisiting of the most oversold 70’s cock rock in the hands of what appear to be skaters escaped from an MTV video clip. In other words, a pastiche of rock based on plagiarisms of the best glam, cocky guitar solos, and budgets close to melodic punk. A guilty pleasure only recommended for incorrigible nerds.
Also out on cassette, Stuck On Nothing’s main concern is to sound thoroughly old-school. Murphy takes care of this with a crunchy production, full of cowbells and invisible tricks that he has already used more than once. But even so, Free Energy doesn’t manage to rise up as the new peak of coolness made in DFA. Not at all. On the contrary. To many European ears, their proposal is going to sound like a pure anachronism. They’ll manage to scrape together a follower or two, but it isn’t hard to predict that over here they’re going to be hard for people with a palate that’s too refined to digest. So (just a friendly warning) don’t come anywhere near this album if you haven’t heard, for example, of the latest fuss caused by Motion City Soundtrack with American critics, or if a work with referents that we could call similar to the Bay City Rollers isn’t among the favourites in your record collection.
On the other hand, it must be understood that all of these comments would form a part of an analysis that is too contextual and theoretical. Taking another point of view, we’ll admit that overall their songs are fairly well written and even better recorded. Let’s say that their strong points cover up for their faults, and so setting prejudices aside and letting ourselves be carried away only by the most superficial listening, it would be complicated for us not to get hit by a burst of this fresh energy full of good vibes. This is why when “Free Energy” (the song) comes on, you feel like taking your skateboard and hitting the street, aiming to be in a video clip or the credits of any really bad American TV series. The guitars, clutched really close to the crotch, pick up the scheme that Tom Petty left to The Strokes, whose retro aspirations are very close to the surface in some of these songs. Then, in “Dream City” appears the album’s other big ghost: T. Rex. His figure is also present in “All I Know,” the best and most vintage of the songs, swaying between palms and an interlude of slide guitars, while the singer Paul Sprangers melts “trying to get around in love with the electric sound.”
Turning a little more towards our present, “Bad Stuff” has more to do than anything else with another toll to be paid: the glory of the inevitable Pavement (Hockey Night was born from a love for this Stephen Malkmus group). The digressive “Light Love” does the same for Weezer’s legacy , also fairly present in spirit. On the other hand, the sticky-sweet second side of the album (which is conceived of, if we haven’t already mentioned it, like old-fashioned vinyl), starts ravel at the seams: “Young Hearts” has laughable amateur back-up voices, “Hope Child” brings together all of the project’s influences and mixes them together in a concoction that is just too old-hat, and the conceited “Wild Wind” has a really hard time keeping itself together. Confused by so much jumping from the 70’s to the 90’s, “Stuck On Nothing” ends up being too sugar-coated and hard to place anywhere. So one of the sexiest launches of the month ends up also being the season’s most extravagant, with all of the bad and the good that this can imply. But structurally speaking, Free Energy doesn’t manage to hide the weak points of a style that is perpetually brazen, and which (still—in 2010) continues to give the feeling that it has some growing up to do. Suspicious.