Say hello to your new favorite political rock band.
One of the more frustrating takes post-Trump is that, “at least we’ll have good punk music!” This is infuriating for two reasons: It trivializes the suffering many musicians will endure in the U.S. with healthcare worries and slashed arts funding, and it ignores the great political music made in the ‘10s. Kendrick Lamar has been expounding on black excellence and decay since Section 80 and G.L.O.S.S., and Downtown Boys have been a shot in the arm for furious punk. But few rock ’n’ roll bands have made fury as fun as Sheer Mag.
Formed just three years ago, Sheer Mag seems to be tailor-made just for the current political climate: A bunch of passionate punks from Philadelphia brilliantly giving the finger to misogyny, violence and economic corruption. Compilation LP collects the group’s first three EPs, laying out the growth of the band and demonstrating the raw potential and excellence they had from the first note.
The album serves up everything in chronological order from EP I to III. From the initial dueling guitar notes and Tina Halladay’s incomprehensible yelling, “What You Want” sets the stage perfectly. Every Sheer Mag song has a fiery tempter, hooks galore and shout along vocals. The melodic sense comes from an American tradition that combines the power pop sensibilities of Weezer and Big Star. But the rougher edges are from the U.K. For example, T. Rex’s Electric Warrior-style guitar prowess is littered all over the album, and the constant comparison to Thin Lizzy isn’t just a lazy short hand for “band has two guitars and hooks.” Instead, the boys are back in town and they are pissed.
The entwining guitars of Matt Palmer and Kyle Seely are an instant draw. There are few things as smile-inducing in rock right now as the opening licks of “Point Breeze” or “Can’t Stop Fighting.” “Worth the Tears” approaches power ballad territory with the sweeping chord changes, but most of the sweetness is also fed through barbed wire thanks to a smart guitar lead. “Fan the Flames” has a chorus that pays homage to jukebox heroes from the late ‘70s and ‘80s, with enough power to make Cheap Trip blush.
That’s a piece of the brilliance here. The hooks are like cotton candy, as sticky as they are sweet. Many of them have to be surgically removed from your brain. Not to mention Halladay’s knack for big choruses. “Hard Lovin’,” “Can’t Stop Fighting” and “Fan the Flames” are specimens of garage-rock amped up to arena-size. Springsteen would be proud. Not just for the songwriting smarts, but for the not-so-sly political movements all over Compilation LP. “Night isn’t Bright” firmly tells media outlets to stop peddling lies and even more forcibly tells the bullshit peddlers to stick a guitar where the sun don’t shine. “Fan the Flames” speaks to the crushing forces of gentrification. Hallady sees landlords cutting corners a gleefully pocketing spare change as their tenants attempt to survive. Written before the Oakland Ghost Ship fire that killed 36, it demands more protections even as city governments become more and more lackadaisical. “When our neighbors burned/ The realtors shook hands/With their backs turned,” seems horrifically prophetic now.
Thankfully, Halladay is great at sloganeering, like on “Button Up,” in which she declares “I’m a bad bitch if I please!” over crunchy guitar work. Closer “Nobody’s Baby” is part anti-love song and part self-confidence booster. “[Treat me the way I deserve],” she sings in the pre-chorus before launching into “I’m nobody’s baby/ I’m nobody’s girl.” When the commander-in-chief has been accused of sexual harassment, it’s a sentiment well repeated.
Best of all is “Can’t Stop Fighting.” Released in late 2016, the song was a direct response and a show of solidarity to women battered by abuse in Mexico. As the year rolled on and the forces of repression grew in power, it didn’t just scream at evil men in Mexico, but at racists in the U.K., dictators in the Middle East and of course a certain Cheeto-dusted asshole. It’s a call to action, a direct attack on apathy that may become as anthemic as Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” a chanted, musical energy shot to activists and protesters the world over. Considering the magical balance between giddiness and seething anger, Sheer Mag might just be the band to pull it off. Say hello to your new favorite political rock band.