When Free Energy's power-pop hooks are working, they rock. But when they aren't up to snuff, the band's lack of personality is a problem.
Free Energy's second album, Love Sign, is like a musical case study in middling power-pop. Like a lot of power-pop bands, Free Energy's goal seems to be to put a smile on the listener's face with catchy, hook-laden guitar rock. Their songs don't have a lot of lyrical depth, but at least they have happy-sounding, mid-tempo guitar riffs.
The band's 2010 debut, Stuck on Nothing, won them a lot of critical acclaim for its combination of classic-style power-pop and infectious enthusiasm. Love Sign updates their sound to include the early '80s without leaving behind the Cheap Trick and Thin Lizzy ideas that permeated their first record. The problem that Free Energy seems to have is that they're skilled imitators without having much personality of their own.
This lack of personality isn't such a problem when the band's hooks are up to snuff. Album opener and first single "Electric Fever" employs the "Whoa Oh"'s and cowbell in just the right places while the chorus shamelessly steals the chord progression from Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet." But because Free Energy at least has the courtesy to come up with their own melody, "Electric Fever" doesn't come off as a slavish imitation, and is a lot of fun. The gently rolling "Hold U Close", with its wide-open, big sky guitars, joyous sentiment, and spot-on backing vocals and harmonies, also works as a solid Big Country / U2-inspired track. And the grinning, trumpet-infused closer "Time Rolls On" could've successfully soundtracked the end credits to any number of '80s movie soundtracks.
That's three out of ten songs, though. And the other seven tracks on Love Sign don't have the melodies to make them stand out in any way. A song like "Girls Want Rock" wants us to fall for the cheery synth line and simple, crunchy guitar chords. "Hey Tonight" has a nimble guitar line in the verses and an airy, tom-dominated drum part. But neither song's chorus has a catchy enough hook to really stick with you. "Hangin" takes an already-mediocre song (J. Geils Band's "Love Stinks") as its inspiration and replaces its memorable lyrics with a by-the-numbers "Hey baby, don't leave me twisting in the wind" sentiment. It goes like this throughout the album.
Free Energy wouldn't have so much trouble with personality if they had a frontman who was an asset. I don't know how much of a showman Paul Sprangers is during the band's concerts, but on record he is an utterly bland presence. He gets the job done, but nothing about his vocal performance stands out. This seems almost unforgivable for a lead singer who doesn't play any instruments, but that's how he comes off on Love Sign. An '80s prom slow-dance like "Dance All Night" could be fun with a more dynamic singer, but in Sprangers' hands it just sort of sits there in neutral.
Love Sign's attempts to update Free Energy's basic sound to include '80s influences is well-intentioned. But like everything else on the album, it only works in fits and starts. Free Energy just doesn't seem to have the chops to rise above their influences. This is an album that would've likely gotten lost in the shuffle among the Romantics, J. Geils Band, and other successful early '80s rock bands, and the only reason it's notable in 2013 is for how hard the band works to recreate that era. This isn't a bad record by any means, but only the three aforementioned songs stand out, and that's not enough to warrant a recommendation.