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Sheer Mag’s Playing Favorites Is a Revivifying Jolt

On Philly band's third LP, anthemic '70s rock and defiant choruses are proof of life
Sheer Mag (Photo credit: Cecil Shang Whaley)

Sheer Mag – Playing Favorites
(Third Man)

Even at capacity, there’s room for joy at the dive bar. On Playing Favorites, the third full-length release from Philadelphia punk stalwarts Sheer Mag, anthemic ’70s rock and defiant choruses are proof of life, a revivifying jolt amidst the fug of cigarette smoke, spilled beer, and the capitalist grind. 

These songs are atmospheric the way Thin Lizzy on the jukebox electrifies a room, closer to bodily possession than mere catchiness. Tina Halladay’s growl entwines with Kyle Seely’s razor-sharp riffs, and the result is alchemical: melodies that burrow deep alongside radio classics like Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl” or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Where 2019’s A Distant Call leaned closer to ferocious AC/DC licks and scathing indictments, Playing Favorites trades menace for wonderment. Halladay marvels often at her good fortune, the sort of gifts money can’t buy, or that can be bought with very little—her dumb luck in love on “Moonstruck,” or a shot of booze and the speakers on high in “Playing Favorites.”

Guitarist Matt Palmer’s lyrics effectively dispatch with navel-gazing. It’s hard to be solipsistic when you’re busy shooting the shit in a sweaty room. “All Lined Up” is a pool table ode; “When You Get Back” is a yachty, harmonized oath of love and friendship. When Halladay yawps “Come on, you son of a bitch” on “Moonstruck,” it could be a clarion call or the prelude to an embrace. Either way, you’re leaning closer. 

“Mechanical Garden” feels like a lone outlier, a forgettable compromise between a power pop song and concept album filler—feverish riffs fade momentarily into a strange ‘80s synth fantasy, two minutes of noodling before the vocals finally give the listener something they can hold. Where “Paper Time” and “Golden Hour” aren’t objectionable, they won’t force you off the barstool the same way “Don’t Come Lookin’” or “I Gotta Go” will.

Still, when Sheer Mag is on, they’re turned up to 11. Playing Favorites proves that joy can show up defiantly, wearing a sleeveless denim vest, and sometimes, a rollicking good time is the glue holding our hearts together. – GRADE: B+

You can check out Playing Favorites at Bandcamp and elsewhere.

Third Man Records