Hey Alright: Free Energy @ Black Cat
This review involves a lot of name-dropping. So don't say you weren't warned.
And, really, how else to consider Free Energy? The Philadelphia-based blogosphere favorite doesn't strive for originality, nor even hipster cachet: You can hear Television or Big Star all you want in the quintet's peppy, big-guitar sound, but really, these guys are all about what you hear on "corporate classic rock stations." Why it works — at least on record in mp3s — has as much to do with the group's nonironic approach as its mindless raison d’être and taut, oft-inspired songwriting. We're understandably skeptical of "woo-ooh," "oh-oh," and "hey alright" choruses, but it's refreshing that Free Energy can actually sell them. Whether that places the band, in those gilded annals of nostalgia rock, closer to The Strokes or The Darkness, I can't say.
In a quick, fairly energetic, and underattended show at the Black Cat downstairs last night, Free Energy cribbed T. Rex's "Mambo Sun" almost verbatim and sometimes invoked The Stooges, but mostly, it reveled in the stuff of Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, early Tom Petty, and (most centrally) Thin Lizzy — think big, loud, elemental, and poppy. Objectively, it was perfect: Hooks breathed, guitars sirened, cowbells clanged. Skinny as death and neon as fuck, singer Paul Sprangers pranced and strutted and crooned, a little bit Iggy Pop, a little less Julian Casablancas. And I was utterly nonplussed.
I suppose I owe you a mea culpa: Strange as it seems, somehow it's easier to appreciate Free Energy on an academic level than a visceral one. To Sprangers and his bandmates, they're just channeling their heroes and playing it straight. Hell, drummer Nick Shuminsky was wearing a Styx shirt. But the band's songs conjure up grander, arena-sized associations it can't pay off live — never mind the half-empty room. What I'm getting at is this: If you're going for pure homage, then mean it. Execute rock kicks. Flash a devil sign or two. Spit on your fans. As long as the songs are good — and Free Energy's songs are very good — it's not self-parody.
The lexicon Free Energy trades in — of partying 'cuz it's all you've got left, of girls called "child" and "babe," where "hold on" is the only imperative — is a seductive one. So are the choruses, repetitive, sure, but entirely infectious. And slowly, the charisma is creaking toward 11.
In an entirely different sense, the evening's openers also made smart use of repetition. With drummer David Rich hospitalized, Buildings (or BLDGS) , usually a quartet, became a one-piece for the evening (BLDG?). Guitarist Collin Crowe smiled nervously as he played, constructing slow-building soundscapes with his guitar, synth, and laptop (chirp noises abounded). In the post-rock tradition, Crowe's compositions involved much guitar noodling, but these moments were more barbed than fluid — more Nels Cline or Loren Connors, say, than Mogwai or Do Make Say Think.
And the Brooklyn band Bear In Heaven favored crescendoing song structures and unusual rhythms over verse-chorus arrangements and 4/4 beats. The quartet drew from bands blending the epic and the artsy — some Spiritualized, much Deerhunter — and half its members played synths half the time. What resulted was a glazed, insistent aesthetic that probably could use more attentive songwriting, but showed promise. Not terrible for an evening of works-in-progress.
Photo by Benjamin R. Freed.