Sheer Mag is built on contradictions. They’re an overtly political band that spends at least half its time playing naked love songs—or, more often, lust songs. Their furious guitar assaults, mom’s-basement recording aesthetic, and grassroots promotional style are as punk as it gets. And yet their songwriting is largely based in the mid-1970s forms—Thin Lizzy-style arena rock, soft rock, and disco—that punk was originally intent on destroying.
On Need to Feel Your Love, the Philly quintet fully embraces these dissonances, creating an album on which even their breeziest, most likeable hooks drip with tension and rage. It’s just as intense in terms of either volume or passion as their self-released EPs, but the album’s somewhat surprising emotional and stylistic eclecticism prevent the band’s library of overcharged ’70s-style riffs or its maximalist energy, epitomized by singer Tina Halladay’s wailing typhoon of a voice, from becoming too fatiguing.
It’s rare for an album with such obvious touchstones in an era that’s not just long gone, but decidedly unhip by present standards, to sound so urgent and of its time. Similar to what the Hold Steady achieved a decade ago, Sheer Mag has reclaimed the swaying dance rhythms and power-and-glory rock riffage of mainstream ’70s music and repackaged it in a manner that feels modern, relevant, and immediate. Lead guitarist Kyle Seely is a compelling riffmeister, capable of effortlessly cycling through a seeming encyclopedia of ideas, from blazing hammer-ons to pounding power chords, even within the same song.
For many bands, such convincing proficiency in classic-rock revivalism is something to aspire to in and of itself. For Sheer Mag, however, it’s almost something of a ploy to draw in listeners before smacking them in the face with an attitude and message that are pure punk. This becomes immediately apparent when “Meet Me in the Street” kicks off the album with revolutionary fervor and guitarical bite worthy of peak MC5. It’s practically an anarchist song: Coming from a more well-known act, lines about “throwing rocks at the boys in the blue” would be sure to induce pearl-clutching from politicians and pundits, especially since the lyrics about politically motivated rioting—“Come on down, get in the mix/Get our kicks, bottles and bricks/When we work together it feels all right”—aren’t just descriptive, they fully encourage it.
Sheer Mag has created an album on which even their breeziest hooks drip with tension and rage.
Classic rock never feels this dangerous anymore. And while the band doesn’t quite match that combined musical and lyrical ferocity elsewhere on Need to Feel Your Love, they don’t shy away from radical politics. On “Expect the Bayonet,” Halladay again broaches political violence against “rich men in their white skin” in the name of “solidarity for those underfoot.” And on “(Say Goodbye to) Sophie Scholl,” the band proves their political literacy extends well beyond mere sloganeering as Halladay recounts the execution of the anti-Nazi student activist, in the process shining a light on the sadly continued necessity of resisting fascism in the modern world.
Even when Halladay isn’t singing about current events, Need to Feel Your Love is stridently purposeful, and often confrontational, in addressing the band’s social environment. It’s clear from the smoking “Turn It Up” that the simple act of plugging in and playing is an intrinsic statement for Sheer Mag—in this case, against the cynical and skeptical: “Before you get smart, listen to me/Now I’ve got a bone to pick/Cause I hear you snigger behind my back/Keep it to yourself, see who gets the last laugh.”
Even the love songs here aren’t without a larger impact. Though Halladay’s often shrill, gritty vocal timbre and constant belting may take a while to warm up to, hearing her reclaim variations on ’70s-style hairy-chested horndog sentiments, whether set to indelible funk on the title track or whirling rock riffs on “Just Can’t Get Enough,” endows them with a feminist edge.
It’s on the second half of Need to Feel Your Love that Sheer Mag begins to expose new facets of their songwriting palette, from the pseudo-folk “Until You Find the One” to the bittersweet R.E.M.-style jangler “Milk and Honey” to, most fascinatingly, “Pure Desire,” which can only be described as garage-disco, anchored by Halladay’s sexy, keening vocal hook. This stretch of songs prompts a series of intriguing questions about the band’s future. How far can they push their dance-music influences without compromising their hard-rock bona fides? Are they willing to break out of their lo-fi aesthetic in service of more ambitious songwriting? Will Halladay continue to explore new facets of her weapon of a voice? Indeed, perhaps the most exciting aspect of Need to Feel Your Love is that it feels like Sheer Mag is only just scratching the surface.