The first thing most everyone writes about Stuck on Nothing, the excellent debut by Philadelphia quintet Free Energy, is its qualifications of cool. These 10 tracks were produced by LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy and released on the label he co-owns, DFA, the New York imprint and production house responsible for material from Hot Chip, The Rapture, Black Dice and Hercules & Love Affair. Essentially, if the musical hip had a magnetic north, DFA lives just up the street.
Similarly, very few mentions of Gayngs—a stoner-soul supergroup linking musicians from North Carolina, Minnesota and Wisconsin—come without a list of the group's bona fides. From indie emcee P.O.S. and party band Solid Gold to folk heart-melter Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and folk form-melders Megafaun, the band's personnel offer a rare combination of star power and musical credibility. Their debut, Relayted, was released by Jagjaguwar, part of an empire-like system of labels that includes bands like Antony & the Johnsons, Okkervil River, Yeasayer and jj. It's a different brand of hip than DFA, for sure, but no less popular at the moment.
Both Stuck on Nothing and Relayted—two of the year's most interesting and self-assured records—have met a similar critical fate. Though made by musicians held fairly high in indie rock's current hegemony, Gayngs and Free Energy have little to do with what's cool now, lyrically or sonically. By pulling from out-of-favor sources, both bands have been deemed attempts at humor, parody or irony. Or as Pitchfork Media critic Nate Patrin wrote in a tepid review of Relayted, "There have always been artists who find humor in making certain styles into grotesque caricatures and using them to point out the absurdity, or greatness, in a genre."
What if that's not the point, though?
Free Energy is a rock 'n' roll band, and not in some canny, term-subverting way, either. No, they're a guitar-drums-bass-playing, Thin Lizzy-and-Cheap Trick-crossing outfit that raves about Christine McVie solo albums and claims both Slint's Spiderland and Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet as influences. Frontman Paul Sprangers sings about kissing girls, lighting fires and loving life as if he's aiming for space in your head and your heart. Catchy and convincing, he seems to smile when he sings, delivering his words like they're motivational speeches. If he's lying about any of this, he should consider theater.
Nathaniel Cramp, a critic for the popular British music magazine NME, wasn't so convinced earlier this month when he handed Stuck on Nothing a 5 out of 10, calling the band "a kind of tongue-in-cheek Journey." Pan aside, Cramp seemed more concerned about whether the album was cool than whether the music was good. For his introduction, he quotes LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge"; for the last, he puns on that Murphy hit for a chuckle-chuckle kicker: "It makes us worry Murphy might be losing his edge." Cramp takes shots at Brooklyn kids and the band's supposed smugness, implying that the only thing sincere about their sound is their hope that it becomes a retro cash cow. Essentially, Cramp suggests, if it's not au courant, it's probably ironic.
But Stuck on Nothing sounds more fun than forced. A willfully youthful record, it's bright, cheery and maybe a little dorky. During "Bad Stuff," Sprangers sings of an apocalypse that happened when the world lost love. If Obama had needed to secure votes from soccer moms and motorcycle papas with one advertisement back in 2008, "Hope Child"—a roadhouse stomper surfaced with an addictive acoustic jangle—would have made the perfect score. "We're breaking out this time/ making out with the wind," Sprangers snaps within the record's first five seconds, coasting above jagged guitar chords and a propulsive cowbell plunk that beats cynics by baiting them. "And I'm so disconnected/ I'm never going to check back in." No apologies, really.
Relayted doesn't shy away from irony backlash, either. At first, it even seems like little more than a series of jokes. The name of the band is Gayngs, after all, and the album's cover welds the outline of a pot leaf with that of a vagina. The collective's promotional portrait is a watercolor painting of the musicians lounging together in a hot tub, with two people barely visible beneath the water, polishing the, er, weapon of gayngleader Ryan Olson. The lyrics—"I grabbed the beans, and spilled them" or "I'm taking baths with rain"—sometimes feel ridiculous. Megafaun's Phil Cook provides lead vocals for a cover of "Cry" by 10cc, the soft rock crew that allegedly inspired the Midwest-meets-North Carolina cartel. Vernon throws down a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony rap during the saxophone-saturated closer, "Last Prom on Earth." Each track moves at 69 beats per minute.
Those parameters might sound like the premise for an episode of the music industry comedy Flight of the Conchords. On Relayted, they work together to create a decadent but despondent environment that, by the time the disco ball spins to its end, has collapsed on itself. Each of the 11 tunes is connected to the next by a psychedelic instrumental segue (think Miles Davis' Get Up With It), linking one questionable deed to another until the romance avalanches into tragedy. That sex-joke tempo is lined with gunshots. A nursery rhyme becomes a survivalist invocation.
And during the album's most riveting track, "The Beatdown," keys twinkle and synthesizers grind as a robotic voice squeals, "I will die young/ I will die" a dozen times. Thick bass and stuttering drums echo from the other side, their dub-like bounce suggesting that those words are but a morose reggae toast—long before death, constant temptation.
Hip is, of course, little but an end product of culture users, a mercurial and artificial concept that is only a matter of perspective. Pitchfork, for instance, generally loves the NME-dismissed Free Energy, and an NME critic recently raved about Gayngs' Relayted, rewarding it a 9 out of 10 (to Pitchfork's 6.5 out of 10) and insisting that it's "the most scintillating and daring record of the year so far."
As that critic, Anthony Thornton, presciently concluded, "Buy it. Play it. Get beaten up for being different." It's bound to happen, isn't it?