Free Energy are derivative. They sound like Cheap Trick. They sound like Weezer. They even sound a little bit like the Strokes. After months of this criticism against their fantastic singles “Free Energy” and “Dream City”, their debut Stuck on Nothin’ has arrived and responds with a proud “so what?”.
Outside of the fact that this is an odd complaint to file against a band on DFA (LCD Soundsystem and Hercules and Love Affair didn’t exactly invent new genres, after all), guitar-pop isn’t a style full of re-invention. Even the best of the genre do little more than add their own mark on a tried-and-true formula, a mark that feels decidedly of-the-moment – whether it’s Cheap Trick’s safe version of rock n’ roll nihilism (getting play when rock was tending towards AC/DC-style machismo), Weezer’s nerdcore appeal (when “independent” was moving towards the mainstream), or the Strokes’ ennui-draped retrofetishization (at the dawn of hipsterdom and “retro revivalism”).
Philadelphia fivesome Free Energy is equally of-the-moment. The group is unashamed of their roots in popular music, their optimism speaks to a post-hipster art scene, and, much like the best work of the Strokes’ other acolytes’ (namely Phoenix and Vampire Weekend), Nothin’ has a high-gloss veneer that fits in well with the shiny production we’ve seen in the (non-shitgaze) indie scene recently.
That production comes courtesy of James Murphy, who uses a remarkably subtle hand here — there’s not even a touch of disco. The only thing that gives the producer away is just how crisp the record sounds — the instruments sound clean and bright, and the mix is busy but never cluttered. Stuck on Nothin’ might be the first guitar-pop album to sound as good on your hi-fi as it does on your convertible’s speakers (which makes its January release date less unfortunate).
Still, Free Energy provide decidedly summer music. The rhythm section never relents (except on the too-long “Bad Stuff”), the guitars bounce and shred as appropriate, and the vocal melodies are radio-ready (although Murphy’s wisely-applied vocal filter — that makes frontman Paul Sprangers sound just slightly lo-fi — keeps things from sounding too “professional”).
And if you’re unsure that you’ll still be stuck on Nothin’ six months from its release: don’t be. None of the singles have aged since their release a few months ago, and the rest of the album stands up as well. While “Free Energy” and “Dark Trance” remain their two best tracks, others come surprisingly close to those lofty heights: the punchy “Bang Pop” could’ve watered mouths as much as “Free Energy” did back in July, and “All I Know” sounds like what we wanted from Weezer in 2001.
With peaks that high, there are bound to be some valleys, and both “Wild Wind” and “Bad Stuff” show the band slightly off of their game. That’s mainly due to just how drawn-out both of the songs feel; they’re both slower and longer than any other tracks on the album. “Wild Wind”, although it shows the holes in Spranger’s amateur vocal delivery at times, fares much better than “Bad Stuff”, which starts off too slow before faking an ending and coming back even slower. With that said, neither of the two are unlistenable by any means and, in a way, provide the album with more structure than most guitar-pop bands bother with. Coming in at tracks five and 10, the two slow jams divide the album into clean halves, sides A and B in the spirit of their ancestry.
So we’re only left with the complaint that Free Energy is too genuine, that their optimism is too omnipresent and too grating. It’s not an entirely invalid observation: Stuck on Nothin’ has seen a greater crossover with Jimmy Eat World fans than most albums I bother with, and “Hope Child” has the line “We broadcast hope”, but instead of being a drawback, the optimism might be the band’s strongest feature. Free Energy’s worldview adds an innocuous thematic twist to pop-punk; optimism, just like ennui, is pretty much universally relatable (whereas lines like Vampire Weekend’s “I spilled coffee on my keffiyeh” or Phoenix’s “Long time no see long time no say” I would consider less so). It may go in the face of the past ten years of disaffected hipsterdom, but tomorrow’s movements are rarely embraced today.
But maybe Stuck on Nothin’ isn’t meant for us hipsters anyway. Maybe it’s meant for real genuine people who like real genuine “rock n’ roll”. I guess I’m not one of those people; here I am writing 800 words on why Free Energy’s debut sets the bar high for the coming decade in pop-rock — a bar nearly as high as the one set by Is This It in 2001. If I were one of those sorts, though, and this came on the stereo at some not-at-all trendy party, I’d look at my bro over a half-filled cup of frothy Natural Light and say, “this fucking rocks.”