On 'Playing Favorites,' Sheer Mag Do Their Best Work on the Dance Floor

BY Matthew TeklemariamPublished Feb 27, 2024


In a 2002 interview with Global Bass Online, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones described the simple body pleasures of his legendary band’s heady rock extravagance, saying, “We actually had a groove in those days. People used to come to our shows and dance.” For all the AOR detail and stadium grandeur, therein lies a tidy summation of the band’s power. It’s also a good peek into Philadelphia rock outfit Sheer Mag’s appeal; beautiful, brazen, foot-stomping simplicity.

When Sheer Mag released their self-titled debut EP in 2014, they were all hooks, guitar fuzz and danceable punkitude. They were focused on a singular mode; ‘70s rock fetishism and all of its trappings. You could headbang, cut a rug or simply zone out to their full-bodied riffs and no-work-all-play mentality. And it was easy to do, given the convivial nature of their music. To call them parochial is somewhat accurate, but ultimately dishonest. They accomplish everything they set out to with enough charm to elevate them above the morass of other similar nostalgia-mining acts.

Now appropriately signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records, the quartet is back after a half-decade hiatus, but you would be forgiven for thinking no one pulled the brakes on this crazy train. 2019’s effortlessly enjoyable A Distant Call proved the group would always be consistent, if not overtly adventurous; the promise of that record’s fantastical prog-rock cover went mostly unfulfilled.

But a new label and extended absence begs innovation, and Sheer Mag’s embrace of change is exactly what they needed on their third full-length, Playing Favorites. The mood has changed, even if the spirit hasn’t. The riffs and unrelenting beats are now accompanied with some poptimist sensibility in what feels like a natural evolution of their sound. True to their late ‘70s roleplay, there are more synthetic sounds and greater emphasis on the rhythm section for painless play at the disco. This is one small step for Mag, but a measured one.

The title track kicks it off with the familiar distant vocals, but with less abrasion and more amicability. Their prior records included some token changes of pace to show off their versatility, but on Playing Favorites, that sense of exploration pervades a good half of the record. The space once given solely to moshers is now equally offered to those clad in boogie shoes. On “Moonstruck,” the cut most likely to find a place in playlist refreshes, a soft-toned guitar hook in the opening bars symbolically gives way to a Bernard Edwards-style thump from bassist Hart Steely. And lo, are those heartfelt acoustics in the background?

Smooth cut “Tea on the Kettle” is as disarmingly domestic as it sounds, and “Mechanical Garden” is an interesting experiment that has the band transmute their usual vigor into Vivaldi with an orchestral section partway through, before an indolent psych jam with guest axeman Mdou Moctar. It’s an interesting if lopsided chimera, and further proof of their newfound boldness.

Sheer Mag is comfortable enough with their new ventures to remain lyrically anodyne, a delirium of party-time cliches and vague longings. Star vocalist and bona fide banshee Tina Halladay isn’t given the room to expand laterally like the rest of the band, perhaps in an effort to retain some identity for a traditionally sclerotic audience. She still does great work in her distinctive echo chamber and gets help from some surprisingly varied background vocals that veer from Van Halen’s jock-rock to Queen’s choirboy chorus, seemingly on a whim. It makes for a clever and comprehensive amalgam of the era they honour.

Like a rock act enchanted with influence after a raucous visit to Studio 54, the goal here is simple: party like it’s 1979. It’s hard to rationalize why their rebel yell has yet to get old, but that’s because you may be thinking too hard. It’s punchy, diverse and ingratiatingly pure in its rowdiness, while maintaining their teeth-gnashing appeal. Final track “When You Get Back” begs on its final line, “Come back, I need you”: try not to oblige. Simply put, Playing Favorites is their best work yet.

(Third Man Records)

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