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. Some might consider that moral compass “dangerous” or “sketchy” or “career suicide”, but not this Philadelphia outfit. Just as their music implies, they’re a carefree bunch led by a spry frontman whose head is comfortably glued to carbonated rock ‘n’ roll records.
“We believe in what we want to do so much that we’re aware that we don’t fit in,” Paul Sprangers told us recently. “We’re not making pop songs that are going to be on the radio, so it’s kind of like you don’t really give a shit what people are saying. All we know how to do is what we do, you know what I mean?” He’s not wrong. Free Energy has forever been a band that’s championed classic, no fuss rock ‘n’ roll — the stuff that greases the heart and plays specifically to that youthful idealism that tends to die sometime after (or during) college. This isn’t some wild, elusive secret they hold, either. Hell, a slight glance at their latest tracklist, which brandishes titles like “Girls Want Rock”, “Dance All Night”, “Hold U Close”, and “Time Rolls On”, offers all the insight one would gain from the album.
That proud kind of rock ‘n’ roll hardly exists anymore — or, at least not successfully. Such acts are usually filed aside as a gimmick or something even worse, which obviously presents some risks. Sprangers, however, could care less. Here’s what he told us about Love Sign earlier this year: “Everything is much more clear and amplified. The rock songs are dumber and bigger. Like, fuck it, we have nothing to lose. If it’s going to be big and dumb, it should be the biggest and dumbest it ever could be.” Now, Love Sign isn’t exactly big and dumb, but it’s not too far off. None of these songs have much to say (seriously, sit back and actually listen to “Hangin”); instead, they’re chewy pieces of bubble gum rock ‘n’ roll, and as sticky as the stuff that mucked up their debut’s album cover. Why does this work then? It all comes down to something as simple as heart.
“All those nights, all those years, time goes on,” Sprangers pleads repeatedly on album closer “Time Rolls On”. It’s elementary poetry best served on construction paper, but there’s just so much conviction selling it. That’s how Free Energy comes out on top. Sprangers’ melodies overwhelm with flavor and it’s because of his natural tenor that he’s able to get by with such banner-friendly lyricism. Earlier, when he ruminates on “Dance All Night”, arguably the band’s strongest track to date, he says it all by simply asking, “What do I say? What can I do?”
He’s not without his teammates, though. Similar to Stuck on Nothing, a frantic supply of guitar work rotates here. Lead guitarist Scott Wells and the band’s latest rhythm guitarist Sheridan Fox tie-dye enough riffs to keep things fresh, especially with the Bachman-Turner Overdrive reboot of “Electric Fever”, the galloping progress of “Hey Tonight”, and the spine-tingling palm muting of “Street Survivor”. The two also know when to dial things down, as heard on both “Dance All Night” and “Time Rolls On”, where they allow the keys or horns to breathe and float about, respectively. Also, the way drummer Nicholas Shuminsky yanked the cowbell back from Will Ferrell for the early-bird summer anthem “Backscratcher” is simply cookie dough ice cream-sort of crazy.
Producer John Agnello, who most accurately commissioned records for The Hold Steady (Boys And Girls In America) and Dinosaur Jr. (Beyond), retains that balmy, scruffy sound that hardly strays from Murphy’s previous work. Given his resume includes ’80s-era Springsteen and jukebox heroes The Outfield, it could be argued that he pushed the guys out of the jean jackets and scruffy Chucks of the ’70s and into the neighborhood of, say, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Granted, this era doesn’t work for them 100%, resulting in warped practices of new wave (“True Love”) or chummy hand-me-down repetition (“Girls Want Rock”), but it does add some flesh to what could have eventually become a skeleton graveyard of ideas.
For a record that never tries to be anything more than a fun rock ‘n’ roll adventure, Love Sign strolls out unscathed. Sure, it’s big and dumb, but it’s never not enjoyable, and that’s the catch. Of all the greatest rock albums of the past year or two, few work off that jovial mentality, which says too much about the genre. (This is a sentiment shared by others.) What Free Energy prove is that you don’t need to have a drinking problem or a sweeping existential crisis to make great, timeless rock ‘n’ roll. By Spranger’s standards, you just need to follow your heart — and yank it back from girls named Hailey. The rest is for the long nights that keep on coming.
And they always will.
Essential Tracks: “Dance All Night”, “Time Rolls On”, and “Street Survivor”