Last year, Free Energy frontman Paul Sprangers made it quite clear that the band’s sophomore effort wouldn’t try and pull any pretentious punches. “We have nothing to lose,” he said. “If it’s going to be big and dumb, it should be the biggest and dumbest it ever could be.” Indeed, the Philadelphia unit’s biggest asset has always been its addiction to meaty guitar hooks and ’70s scuzz—Stuck On Nothing, the band’s much-buzzed-about, James Murphy-assisted debut, was not so much a rock album as it was a nostalgic sugar rush. If you’re looking for sophistication, you’ve got the wrong band. Free Energy takes its high-fructose rock to epic new levels on its sophomore album, Love Sign. If the last record evoked images of a seedy downtown bar, this one is rooted in scenes of glam arena grandeur.
Instead of James Murphy, rock producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, the Hold Steady) is at the helm this time around, and he plays to the band’s strengths: the ebullient guitar solos, the balls-out attitude and, most importantly, the larger-than-life choruses. The influences are crystal-clear: Springsteen, Thin Lizzy, Boston. As such, tracks like the cowbell-heavy opening track guitar duel, “Electric Fever,” and the Cars-indebted “Girls Want Rock” owe much of their wallop to their nostalgic flavor. With its confluence of shouted “Yeah!”s and Pixy Stix-sweet solos, “Hangin” is a slice of power-pop heaven, while the summery, country-inflected “Hold You Close” is a heartland-rock banger John Cougar Mellencamp could’ve written.
The paradigm here is catchiness, rather than complexity, and it has its drawbacks. Most of the songs follow the classic-rock blueprint: crunchy verse, giddy chorus, another crunchy verse, stacked solo, rinse, repeat. Additionally, with the three guitarists taking up much of the sonic space, Sprangers’ vocals can drift into the background. He’s more than capable of belting out a refrain, but at certain points—like the New Wave slow-jam “True Love”—his singing can seem wan compared to the instrumental acrobatics behind him. For the most part, Love Sign never loses its propulsive appeal; the only slip-up is “Dance All Night,” a tepid piano ballad that seems misplaced among the bangers that dominate the rest of the album.
Still, Love Sign escapes almost all of the sophomore LP pitfalls. Free Energy earned a considerable amount of praise for forgoing the frivolity and focusing on the fun, and the Philadelphia rockers know better than to mess with that formula. Thirty years ago, that was the M.O., and in this age of seriousness, records like this one serve as an important reminder that rock ‘n’ roll is, at the end of the day, all about capturing a youthful spirit.