Sheer Mag is not here to save rock ’n’ roll.
It’s no secret: rock’s been in a bad way for a while. In the 15 or so years since it’s had any commercial cachet, it’s come to be associated with misogyny, white-male machismo, false standards of authenticity and inflammatory genre wars. It takes a hell of a band to get people excited about rock ’n’ roll again. The Strokes and the White Stripes dazzled us in 2001. The Exploding Hearts looked promising in 2003, then died in a car crash. This decade, we had… Ty Segall? Courtney Barnett?
The Philly five-piece Sheer Mag has what it takes to get people excited again. Sheer Mag is tight, hooky and reverent to the blues-born rock tradition without falling victim to its worst cliches. Filled with feminist fury, but unlike rabble-rousers like Perfect Pussy and White Lung, it’s actually pretty easy to understand what singer Christina Halladay is hollering about. Her band doesn’t have an album out yet, but III, its third and so far best EP, is such a complete and rewarding work it barely even matters.
This is not a forward-thinking band. Its allegiance is to the ‘70s, when pop and rock were one and the same, and there are lots of easy reference points for its music, likeThin Lizzy, Mick Taylor-era Stones and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (Halladay even sounds a bit like Jett). Tons of bands channel these influences, but what makes Sheer Mag so great is its intuitive understanding of how that music works. It knows how crucial hooks are to this strain of rock, and its knows how to write and sing them. It knows how beautiful dueling guitar leads are, and it channels that knowledge into the soaring coda of opener “Keep On Fighting.” It knows how ecstatic bluesy solos can be – but it also know when to take a step back.
Two of the EP’s four tracks are political. “Keep On Fighting” is a laundry list of reasons why we need feminism, and it opens gravely, referencing female homicide in Ciudad Juarez. But Halladay sings it as one big, long hook. The contrast between the grave lyrics and their sugar-coated delivery might be jarring, even a bit disconcerting, if not for Halladay’s obvious conviction. Catchy feminist anthems are usually the terrain of pop stars like Ke$ha and Beyonce; it’s awesome to hear a rock band do it too, and this well.
“Keep On Fighting” shows, while the less effective “Night Isn’t Bright” is content to simply tell: “We live and we die by a politics of simplification,” – again, sung like her crush just said yes to prom) It’s easily the least of the EP’s four songs, but it’s still catchy as shit, and relatively low-key slowing the pace down just enough to make this breezy 13-minute morsel feel just a little bit more like an album.
The EP’s other two tracks are love songs, and as luck would have it, this band is reallyfucking good at writing love songs. “Worth The Tears” has the best hook on the album, and though it’s a tempestuous post-breakup song, it feels hopeful; she’s not self-pitying, just mad. On “Nobody’s Baby,” she’s pissed her man is dancing (dancing – how quaint!) with another girl. Both of these songs could have been written any time in the last 40 years, which is probably the point.
Sheer Mag’s music isn’t timeless, but it aims for timeless pleasures. Genres, trends, and fads come and go. But nobody can deny a hook, or a well-written love song, or an even better-written political song (well, unless you disagree with it). Sheer Mag is not here to save rock ’n’ roll. But it’s a great reminder of why it’s fun to have around.