On “Free Energy,” the opening track of Free Energy’s Stuck On Nothing, Paul Sprangers sings, “This is all we’ve got tonight” and, by album’s end, that one line rings in my ears like a prophecy fulfilled. If you were to chart the dynamic shifts from track one to track ten, you’d end up with a straight line. So if you don’t like “Free Energy” the song, you won’t like Free Energy the band. If, on the other hand, you’ve always wanted an album where every song is a cross between Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” and Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” you’re going to be stuck on Stuck On Nothing like Morrissey is stuck on himself.
Free Energy’s music is an unapologetic pastiche of 1970s glam and early hair metal (there’s finger tapping less than two minutes into the first track. Finger tapping, for those of you who don’t play guitar, is the most overrated “asset” in any given guitar player’s arsenal. Pioneered by Eddie Van Halen, it’s also the fastest way to signal to your audience that you’re probably an asshole*), and they’ve been compared to the Hold Steady because of that, but there is a crucial difference and that is this: the Hold Steady is moving their classic rock sound forward, writing songs that actually say something new with the old sound. Free Energy, embracing every rock cliche ever (you can practically hear the drummer twirling a stick in one hand while throwing up the devil horns with the other. The only thing missing is a lighter-waving ballad, but I’m glad because if/when they finally do write one of those it will probably sound like a cheap knockoff of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” and I would die from that kind of sorrow), is a band that’s not even trying. And “not even trying” seems to be a serious part of their modus operandi. The lyrics are beyond lazy – all about stars and streetlights and dreams and all the shit that everyone has talked about forever. This is the shit your alcoholic stepdad cries about when he’s polishing off the last of today’s case of Hamm’s. That is, this is the shit of your alcoholic stepdad’s squandered youth.
Am I being too picky? Maybe. I mean, Stuck On Nothing is kind of a fun listen if you don’t pay too much attention to it. Producer James Murphy (yes, the James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem) has coaxed a nice warm, vaguely T. Rex sound out of Free Energy, but he bests every track on this album with every track on LCD’s brand spanking new This Is Happening. The real problem is that this album does one thing well (apes the living shit out of the 70s and 80s – “Bang Pop” reminds me of the J. Geils Band in that it is a retarded party anthem) and never stops doing it. Ever. The whole album has the same shiny, warm tone to it – no dynamic shifts, no surprises, no substance whatsoever. I guess you could say that they picked up the ball that Weezer dropped, but that’s not saying much (especially now. Seriously, did anyone out there like Raditude? I’ve heard three songs off of it and each one makes me want to hit Rivers Cuomo in the face with a bag full of everyone else in Weezer).
At a certain point, “it’s fun” is not a compelling enough reason for me to like an album. You know what’s fun? The Flaming Lips’ Transmissions from the Satellite Heart album. But it’s a lot of other things too, like “interesting,” “dynamic,” and “lyrically compelling.” Likewise, the Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is a lot of fun (well, to me it is) but it’s got some other stuff going for it too (like vitriol. Lots of vitriol on that record). People listen to Lady Gaga because she’s fun and I’m sure people will listen to Free Energy because they’re fun but just because you think it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s fun for me. Yahtzee Croshaw over at Zero Punctuation knows exactly how I feel, though we disagree somewhat about Just Cause 2‘s worthiness as a video game. But that proves my point – Just Cause 2‘s seething disdain for reality, plot, and decent voice acting is outweighed, for me, by the fact that I can attach soldiers to gas tanks, shoot the tanks, and send said soldiers flying off into the wild blue yonder. For Mr. Croshaw, it’s just not enough and that’s totally cool. If I ever meet the dude, I’m gonna totally buy him a beer. But I will not, under any circumstances, try to ram a game down his throat because “it’s fun.” Jerking off is fun, it doesn’t mean everyone has to do it all the time.
Pitchfork’s review suggested that Stuck On Nothing was like a satisfying game of Rock Band and I have to say I sort of agree with them. It’s Rock Band: Alcoholic Stepdad Edition, but what sucks about it is it’s a great round of Rock Band where your asshole friends never let you play**. I’m sure Free Energy had a blast making this record and I don’t begrudge them that, but they shouldn’t begrudge me wanting to listen to Electric Warrior instead of their album.
I know, I sound like I kinda hate this album. I don’t, though. I just don’t like it. Maybe Stuck On Nothing is a good radio album – I could see maybe digging one of these songs if I heard it surrounded by more varied material (“Hope Child,” though stupidly named, is not without its charms). Maybe. The thing is, with this album, Free Energy seems to be saying to me, “See? Rock ‘n’ Roll is easy, bro!” As a message, that’s not enough for me. On Raw Power (you should own this album, by the way), the Stooges said, “Rock ‘n’ roll is easy,” but they were also saying, “Life is nearly impossible and we’re pretty upset and confused about that. So we’re gonna break shit.” Now that’s a message worth hearing.
*When I first started playing guitar, I wanted to be a shred guy too and I did the finger tapping and all the noodly shit and if I’ve never publicly renounced it before, I repudiate and renounce it now. Johnny Ramone did more with a single E chord than Eddie Van Halen did in a lifetime of bullshit finger tapping and phaser effects. End of story.
**Lest I be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that my friends are assholes who never let me play Rock Band. On the contrary, my friends let me play while wearing a funny hat and spewing useless information about the Clash. I was talking about your friends and hey – if those assholes never let you play, maybe you should hang out with my friends. They’re awesome.