The first song on Free Energy's first album is called . . . "Free Energy." If that makes it something of a mission statement, there's good reason. On that one track the Philadelphia five-piece defines its musical aesthetic by managing to cram all the calling cards of '70s arena rock into a tidy package of oversize hooks, synchronized guitar solos and stoner poetry. "We're breaking out this time / Making out with the wind / And I'm so disconnected / I'm never gonna check back in," are the first words Paul Sprangers sings as bright power chords ring alongside him. There's also plenty of cowbell. (Obviously.) Later come the hand claps. First song on first album now, first song on a double-live album a few years down the line?
"Stuck on Nothing," the band's long-delayed, just-released album, is one that your outcast uncle, who has hung on to all of his old vinyl LPs, will dig as much as your hipster nephew, who is just discovering the joys of a turntable.
"Obviously, we listen to a [expletive] ton of classic rock," Sprangers says, laughing. "Springsteen, Seger, they're singing from the heart. They're, like, dudes who have been through the gantlet of life. Thin Lizzy, I hold all those bands in such high regard. I just don't feel like we live up to those." The modesty may be misplaced. "Stuck on Nothing" features a seemingly endless supply of singalong choruses and air-guitar riffs, turning every song into a lighter-waving anthem.
Sprangers and guitarist Scott Wells used to play together in Hockey Night, an indie rock band with classic-rock tendencies. This time around they decided to embrace their love of the '70s and go all the way with it, a decision encouraged by their most important fan, James Murphy. The mastermind of dance-rock faves LCD Soundsystem signed them to his label, DFA, and served as producer for "Stuck on Nothing."
"He just pushes us to make those direct choices," says Sprangers, 29. "His experience helps. Sometimes what may seem like cheesy choices, well, it's easier to take risks when someone's got your back."
Those cheesy choices may or may not extend to the band's wardrobe and look. Free Energy looks the '70s part as much as it sounds it. Catch the band live and you'll see the rail-thin Sprangers sporting shoulder-length hair, painted-on jeans and maybe a ratty tank top while the rest of the band members seem as if they just stumbled out of the back of a Volkswagen van. And if they could find a Volkswagen van that would ably get them from city to city, that would probably be exactly the case.
--David Malitz, March 2010