Free Energy and the problem of uncomplicated fun in indie rock
For a young band that hasn’t publicly stepped on any toes or gotten big enough to become a target, Free Energy have an awful lot of people already apologizing for them. It seems like hyperaware critics and bloggers can’t write about their music without getting defensive. Here are a few quotes from some heavy hitters:
“[Frontman Paul Sprangers] breezes through a few volumes’ worth of conversational, inspirational poesy that’s bound to send a few of you into fits of cringe. But, the fact that it’s all delivered so un self-consciously is very refreshing. Much the same way kids shoot hoops pretending to be Michael or Kobe or LeBron, these dudes are doing the same with classic rock. And the posing and pastiche sound great.” – Pitchfork’s 8.1 review of their debut album, Stuck on Nothing (they were also added to Pitchfork’s summer festival)
“I think they get a lot of flack for being too X and not enough Y (which are different things depending on who you talk to), I’ve heard from some that they sound like someone’s little brother’s band playing REO Speedwagon covers at a basement party in high school, and I’ve heard from others that they are the best live band to hit this year. And both are true. The best thing about Free Energy is their complete lack of pretension, their simple glam rock influenced hooks and just how infectiously happy they are to get up on stage and play.” – Brooklyn Vegan (live review by Gabi Porter, who I’ll admit isn’t a very regular contributor as far as I can tell)
“French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that “existence precedes essence,” and Free Energy seem to be musing along the same philosophical lines. These songs are, without exception, engaged in a discussion about the nature of existence. Take “Bang Pop” as an example: although the obvious Def Leppard homage makes the primary impression, the oft-repeated lyric, “Bang bang, pop pop/ When will the searching stop?” evinces a subtextual reading of pop music tropes.” – Tiny Mix Tapes review (4/5)
And, finally, a voice of reason:
“It’s a sign of the cold times that a witty, sardonic, effortlessly hooky power-pop record such as this one needs so much help to attract the least notice.” – Dusted’s positive review (worth an 80 according to Metacritic)
Overall, the album has an 80 average on Metacritic, indicating a stronger reception than less obviously divisive albums from established indie artists like Ted Leo, Love Is All, and Liars. It’s also a better aggregated score than the ones earned by the Morning Benders and Dum Dum Girls, fellow buzzy upstarts from the Class of 2010. The two lowest (but still positive) scores are from Billboard and Rolling Stone, and nobody gives a shit about what they have to say anyway. So why all the defensiveness? It’s not like any of these reviewers is breaking with consensus and going out an a limb to defend a Nickelback album or something.
These reviews point out the lameness of a bright, shiny classic rock sound then proceed to explain why in this case it is okay. There are a few common tools they use in doing so. The biggest one is the album’s producer, the unimpeachably cool James Murphy of LCD Soundsytem and DFA Records. You can’t hate on James Murphy, right? The guy built his name on having excellent taste, both through his label and the references in his music, both explicit and implicit. He broke out with a single that consisted of eight minutes of carefully tailored name drops over an increasingly awesome beat. So if he likes Free Energy, it must be okay to like Free Energy. Pitchfork even goes so far as the claim him as the sixth member of the band. Murphy did occupy a sixth man role for noise-punk weirdos Six Finger Satellite back in the ’90s, but it’s a little fucking absurd to say his role in Free Energy is comparable. He actually toured with Six Finger Satellite back then, making him an important part of both their live and studio aesthetic. He was more like Martin Swope/Bob Weston in Mission of Burma. In the present case, his role in Free Energy ended when the record was finished.
Another common tool these reviews have been using is the band’s lack of pretension. Well, no shit it’s lacking in pretension. The classic rock touchstones you hear on the radio aren’t pretentious, either. Calling them “pretension-free” and “refreshing” is coded indie language that really just means they sound like they belong on the radio and the speaker finds this problematic.
I think it’s helpful to look at another fairly recent example of the critical community talking themselves into acceptance of an album with superficially suspect qualities. Last year, Japandroids got some big raves for their debut full length, Post-Nothing. Quite a few of the lyrics were total groaners, but the album got raves from the right people and made them indie famous. Surprisingly, though, the lyrics were often singled out as one the band’s strengths. I don’t know how you open an album with a song that just repeats two phrases (“The boys are leaving town” and then “will we find our way back home?”) ad nauseum and get called strong songwriters, but it happened. Critics seemed to find lines like those to be condensed slogans that strike the right tone and cut right to the heart of the twentysomething condition. Maybe they’re right. The album did grow on me, and the repeated lyrics kind of have the same effect as Sideshow Bob stepping on all those rakes: at first you don’t pay much attention, then it starts to seem lazy and repetitive, but after awhile it almost seems brilliant. But I think those idiot savant nuggets of wisdom were come upon as accidentally as the rake gag.
Anyway, if Post-Nothing had been slick and polished like Stuck on Nothing, I suspect it would have been brutalized. Instead it had a thick, fuzzed out guitar tone that got the band labeled shoegaze, lo-fi, noise rock, and other terms that really don’t do much to accurately describe the band’s sound. It’s a nice sound, though, and it fits comfortably within the range of what is currently acceptable in indie rock. You wouldn’t mistake it for radio rock. Critics made the case for the band’s lyrics, but they didn’t have to work as hard because the sound was already there. I personally believe the appeal of the album is totally visceral, and if you think too hard about it, the cracks start to show. The lyrics might work in the moment, but damn some of them suck. Just read the lyrics to “Heart Sweats.”
Free Energy’s music is also best appreciated on an immediate level, but they don’t have the same fuzzy shield to hide behind. They would sound great on the radio, and those classic rock sounds are front and center. So the critics turn to the lyrics to justify the kicks they get from listening to these airtight pop-rock songs. They exhaust their word count explaining how the band embodies Sartre quotes, and how those who might call the band shallow don’t get what they’re really about. Also, James Murphy. Gotta get that in there, too.
Those reviewers are full of shit. When Sprangers sings “there comes a time when it’s different / but not today” over that T. Rex guitar riff on “Bad Stuff,” the people who are connecting with it are nodding their heads to a great rock song, not stroking their chins and appreciating the tension between the music and lyrics. Dusted’s Emerson Dameron nails it in that quote above. It’s pathetic that an album so straightforward needs so much justification.
I’m not against thoughtful criticism. I have no use for reviews that serve no other purpose than to say “good/bad/meh.” However, I also have no use for critics so narrow minded that they have to jump through hoops before they can allow themselves to have a little fun. Furthermore, I think it has prevented any interesting discussion of Stuck on Nothing. Outside of some opening remarks, Dameron focuses mainly on the album’s lyrics and manages to say more in his short review than either of the TMT and Pitchfork reviewers manages in their much longer reviews. And he never makes excuses for a sound he acknowledges as active-rock radio friendly that sounds perfect for the summer.
For the record, I like the band and the album. This isn’t meant to be a screed against them, just the misguided criticism directed at them. In the end, I agree with the ratings they’ve been given. I just don’t agree with the process used to justify those ratings. I think it’s okay to like something bright and shiny when it’s done this well. I don’t need to invent some subtext for Free Energy in order to justify my affection. Stuck on Nothing isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely earned a place in the rotation. Go listen to it and see what you think. If you like it, you can catch them live this summer. It will probably be fun.