Sheer Mag – Playing Favorites

Beloved Philly four-piece find new games to play on impressive third album

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For a while there Sheer Mag were the last great American indie band, releasing singles, EPs, compilations and at least two classic albums on their own shoestring Wilsun RC imprint based out of Fishtown, Philadelphia. But it’s only fitting that they finally signed on the dotted line with Jack White’s Third Man Records.


Though they’re not quite ready for the label’s hand-crafted, lathe-cut, heavyweight vinyl treatment – the quintessential Sheer Mag format you feel might still be a busted-up, unspooled old cassette you find at the side of the road outside a gas station somewhere on I-10 – you could say that Sheer Mag are the true spiritual heirs of The White Stripes.


If the Stripes’ artfully homespun, high-concept primitivism was the perfect expression of the USA’s garage band soul at the turn of the century, then the Philly quartet are the modern equivalent. Both the Mag and the Stripes are bands that have thrived on limitations. In fact, what mono was for Jack and Meg, you might say compression is for Sheer Mag. Look at the wave form for “Eat It Or Beat It”, the second track on Playing Favorites, and it’s as solidly brickwalled as the Eastern State Penitentary – none of the rich dynamic range that’s come into favour since the end of the CD-era loudness wars. It’s the sound of late-night AM radio sometime in the late 1970s/early ’80s, where hard rock, power pop, country, new wave, disco and even a little prog have been impacted together into diamond-hard nuggets consisting of pop hooks, gutbucket rock’n’roll and demented, defiant joy.

It’s part of Sheer Mag’s irresistible charm that they continue to find thrilling new ways of traversing the same dirt track chicanes of verse, chorus, bridge and solo. In fact Hart and Kyle Seely, the engine room and writers of Sheer Mag’s tunes might be the most smartest pop formalists this side of Jack Antonoff. Playing Favorites kicks off with the title track, another timeless anthem to chasing the domestic blues away, packing up the van and searching for kicks on the road. For all Tina Halladay’s shredded vocals – she’s Janis Joplin, straining to make herself heard over an XF-84H Thunderscreech – it’s an immaculate confection, rivalling New Zealand’s power-pop supremos The Beths in the elegant ingenuity of its construction.

The album supposedly began life as an attempt at a disco EP – albeit the kind of dancehall where the floor comes alive with shots of jack rather than poppers – and though Sheer Mag aren’t quite ready for their string section, you can hear some of the Philly roots of disco on “All Lined Up”, which makes a metaphysical conceit worthy of Marvell out of the ricochet of pool balls across a desolate poolhall. “This world’s cold, and we’re alone/But we’re not just drifting through outer space,” croons Halliday hopefully. “We got shot at an angle/To the deepest pocket yet made”. At times Sheer Mag are miraculous pop hustlers, still pulling off the most absurd trick shots on the scuffed three yards of stained green baize.


Which isn’t to say that they’re not above a little experiment. In the past Sheer Mag may have viewed the four-minute mark with the same wariness as the Ramones or Roger Bannister, but here we have “Mechanical Garden”, clocking in at an epic 5:55, comprising a ZZ Top boogie prelude, an orchestral interlude and some arpeggios that might have found a home on Rush’s Moving Pictures, before resolving into a disco strut worthy of Hall & Oates. What’s more it features guest shredding from Tuareg guitar master Mdou Moctar.

But the most intriguing departure on Playing Favourites might be the moments when they turn down the dial from 11 for a moment. “Tea On The Kettle” was apparently inspired by the band’s love of Essex post-psych mavericks the Cleaners From Venus. “Someday when we can find more than pennies and dimes, we’ll go somewhere gentle,” sings Tina with beguiling tenderness, like she’s dusting herself down after battling through another force 10 hurricane.  “Baby, with you by my side it’s a whole new ball game.” At times like this it feels like Sheer Mag are only just getting started.


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Beloved Philly four-piece find new games to play on impressive third albumSheer Mag - Playing Favorites