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Free Energy, ‘Love Sign’ (Free Energy)

What's on Your Mind (Free Energy)?
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Label: Free Energy

Dramatic cowbell use by a rock band in 2013 could almost be considered a political act, or at the very least a statement. It’s either ironic — “Hey, we get how dated this sounds!” — or it’s some sort of reclamation. It’s never been easy to tell whether Free Energy’s unabashed embrace of ’70s and ’80s radio rock was sincere, or delivered with a massive wink. The Philly band’s first album, 2010’s Stuck on Nothing, was released by DFA, which added to the confusion; had it come out on a label less aggressively hip and arch-by-definition, it might have been relegated to some dusty corner where power-pop revivalists sit around debating Yellow Pills comps and the relative merits of Greg Kihn.

So the first question you might ask here is “Are they serious?” instead of “Are the songs any good?” (Answers: “Why does it matter?” and “Mostly yes,” respectively.) The band is surely aware of and intrigued by the line they’re walking — otherwise there wouldn’t be so much of the aforementioned cowbell, not to mention pick-sliding and relentless, over-produced “joy” on their second album. No longer a part of James Murphy’s orbit — Love Sign is self-released, the DFA relationship apparently dissolved — the band have cranked up the slickness and lightness, apparently determined to prove that they can craft high-quality cheese. And cheese, of course, given proper proportions, can be deliciously enjoyable.

Love Sign is not interested in balance: From the opening cowbell of “Electric Fever,” it’s forceful in its intentions, which are to rock you, get your lighter in the air, etc. (In a way, they’re the pseudo-Cheap Trick to Andrew W.K.’s pseudo-Ted Nugent, if that makes sense.) And then come all the declarations of love, in the simplest, most classic-rockin’ sense, from the electro/New Romantic ballad “True Love” (which shamelessly spells out its title several times) to the rollicking, Dexy’s Midnight Runners-inspired “Hold U Close.”

The lyrics clearly aren’t supposed to inspire deep thoughts: “Baby, let the moment breathe” means no more than “Whoa whoa whoa yeah,” and perhaps less. That’s not necessarily a slight. If frontman Paul Sprangers were trying to make any sort of statement beyond “Baby, I love you” and “Let’s all have a swell time” (I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly), it would sink Love Sign. But Free Energy know that what they’re emulating is about bliss not meaning, and they’re savvy enough to embrace pop simplicity without condescending to it.