Available on: DFA 7″

I bought my copy of the new self-titled 7″ by Free Energy today from the house/techno-oriented retailer where I buy most of my records. What follows is the exchange between myself and the store’s grimly candid proprietor as my card transaction went through:

Store owner: Why are you buying this? It’s rubbish.

Me: Er, is it? I don’t know, I quite like it.

Store owner: Hmm.

Me: I don’t know if ‘rubbish’ is the word I’d use. ‘Incredibly cheesy’, certainly.

Store owner: No. Rubbish.

It’s not the first time that I’ve found myself defending Free Energy against the incredulous. This is band that seems to inspire hatred in most people. Formed by Scott Wells and Paul Sprangers, the hippieish dudes formerly at the core of cult Mineappolis indie outfit Hockey Night, and signed to DFA Records, Free Energy are certainly a mess of contradictions. Their sound, lovingly rendered by producer James Murphy, is unreconstructed AM rock – reminiscent of Tom Petty, The Sweet and Kiss at their absolute sunniest – the kind of shit you might expect the kids in Dazed & Confused to listen to en route to a keg-party.

On paper, the idea of James Murphy producing an unironic college-pop band is an appealing one, but understandably it’s not found favour with those who prefer to think of DFA as a stable for urbane disco and innovative electronic music. Indeed, some might view the signing of Free Energy as a mark of arrogance on the part of DFA, worse still a bid for commercial conventionality. Not me. I personally think it’s a bold step up, or rather sideways, for the label: because, let’s face it, Free Energy aren’t going to sell thousands and thousands of records. Their music is so accessible, so immediate, so rooted in canonical rock tradition, that it’s actually liable to confuse people and put them off, rather than draw them in. The sombre DFA heads won’t get into it because it sounds like everything they define themselves against, and the conventional rock fans won’t buy it because, well, they just won’t.

So what makes this record worth DFA’s risk and your time? It has something to do with its guileless positivity, and its conviction. If you take it on its own terms, it’s simply great pop music – uncomplicated and, in its own dippy way, uncompromising. Sprangers and Wells songwriting is direct and not especially nuanced, but, no doubt partly thanks to Murphy’s guiding hand, they structure ‘Free Energy’ in such a way as to make it compelling and, how should we say, predictably unpredictable. It’s at once terribly safe and terribly unnerving. There is no chorus as such, just a series of verses broken up by bridges that lead nowhere, with a hammy guitar solo thrown in for good measure. And perhaps there’s the rub: this is a nothing so much as a guitar record. If you want to get all postmodern about it, it isn’t a record featuring guitars so much as a record about guitars. James Murphy, who began life engineering punk and grunge records, has almost entirely occluded guitars from the LCD Soundsystem oeuvre, and here he makes up for lost time – coaxing the most ebullient, succulent sound imaginable out of Sprangers and Wells axes. I don’t know about you, but I’d got so accustomed to the electro and post-punk-informed anorexia of modern-day rock music that I’d forgotten how fat an electric guitar can sound.

Anyway, I don’t think I’ve done a particularly a good job of defending this record, but I hope you’ll give it a chance anyway. For all the qualitative arguments, I dare say that nostalgia will play the biggest role in deciding whether you revere or revile it. The lyrics, a series of gauchely articulated sentiments about being young and seizing the moment and that kind of shit, may just grate. For better or worse they remind me of a more innocent and emotionally involved time, when all I really cared about were girls, alcohol and not fucking up my GCSEs.

Cayce Pollard



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