Good music emancipates the listener. Boring jobs, troubled relationships, rush hour traffic… such mundane prisons are no match for the liberating power of a fantastic pop song. Think of Stuck On Nothing as one giant stack of “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards.
Propelled by cowbell and carbonated guitars, Free Energy’s eponymous theme song—and debut single—finds front man Paul Sprangers declaring “We’re gonna start a new life, and see how it goes.” Which is exactly what Paul and his songwriting foil, Scott Wells, did when they left St. Paul, MN for new digs in Philadelphia.
Free Energy marks a leap forward from their previous band, indie combo Hockey Night. “Hockey Night was not as focused, a little more reserved,” says the vocalist. By way of contrast, the driving pulse of Free Energy’s “Bang Pop” could jump start a stalled semi-truck, and “Bad Stuff” juxtaposes vapor trail guitars with nimble riffs that rival Thin Lizzy. Snippets of glam, power pop, bubblegum and arena rock all filter into the mix.
Stuck On Nothing is not music for the arms-folded set holding up the back wall. “With Free Energy, the first thing we do is make sure the drums sound awesome,” explains Sprangers. “Then we build on top of that, so everything is solid, well thought out, and distilled to its essence.” The vocals are always audible and up front. Free Energy make singing along just as easy as stamping your feet and clapping in time. “There’s a lot of optimism and positivity in the music, lyrics and imagery,” the singer concedes. Do not resist the exuberance. You can’t stop the children of the revolution.
The ten songs of Stuck On Nothing began life as a string of modest, homemade demos, but only as a jumping-off point. “You can just make little four-track things that are pleasing to listen to, but we’re a rock n roll band, and rock n roll music is supposed to be dance music,” insists Wells. So the band—which also includes Geoff Bucknum, Nicholas Shuminsky, and Scott’s brother, Evan Wells—turned to producer James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.
“James helped us achieve a big sound that we were unsure of how to realize ourselves,” Sprangers acknowledges. Yet that “big sound” Murphy helped them flesh out is deceptively finessed, too. The unhurried tempo of “All I Know” may evoke Marc Bolan at the height of his arena-filling fame, yet the exhalations of breath that pan back and forth in your ear buds inject a hint of intimacy, too.
Throughout writing and rehearsing, and particularly during recording dates at DFA’s Plantain Studio, Free Energy and their producer took cues from myriad sources, including vintage Juicy Fruit chewing gum commercials and the TV themes of Mike Post. Scott makes no bones about his love of the music for “The Rockford Files” and “Magnum P.I.,” “these really brief, driving songs that have a sustained, cinematic feel to them.” His own fretwork reflects that affection, mixing succinct riffs with the persistent promise of more excitement just ahead.
But unlike many of their young peers, they evoke earlier eras without winking. They don’t stand over a trapdoor marked “irony.” Their originals feel immediate and of-the-now. In part, that contemporary edge is a product of their youth, and an aesthetic forged on the indie rock circuit. It also reflects the circuitous path they took through modern music to arrive at the Free Energy sound.
Believe it or not, Scott had stopped listening to anything “identifiably blues based” by the time he finished middle school. He listened exclusively to punk and hip-hop, before advancing to experimental modern electronic fare like Oval and Fennesz. “I felt like that was where music was at, and you couldn’t do anything else if you wanted to be current.” It wasn’t until college he resumed showing consideration for albums older than he was.
For the swaggering “Dream City,” Scott used the Sweet’s “Blockbuster” as a sonic model. Steve Miller Band, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Cheap Trick are all Free Energy favorites, too. “Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to compete with: The songs you might hear any minute on a corporate classic rock radio station,” admits the guitarist.
And if something didn’t come naturally while recording? They threw out the blueprint and forged ahead. Hence the name, Stuck on Nothing. To their surprise, those three little words had never been used as an album title. Free Energy were happy to rectify that oversight immediately. How could they not? “It just sounds like a rock & roll album,” says Wells. And he should know. Because his band just made a great one.