Over the past couple of years, Sheer Mag has run one of the tightest ships in music. The Philly rock quintet released three 7” singles in three years, each with four songs, grainy black-and-white punk-flyer cover art and a distinctive retro band logo. They named these EPs I, II and III, and then compiled them into a self-titled 12-song LP with that logo stretched all the way across the cover.
They played some shows, but didn’t tour extensively. Videos of rowdy gigs in DIY spaces, with the band surrounded by its audience, popped up YouTube. The band eschewed a publicist (until recently) and did very few interviews.
For those who value such things, the commitment to punk austerity and aesthetic cohesion was laudable. As is often the case, playing mysterious helped feed the hype: Sheer Mag made a lot of year-end 2016 “best of” lists, played Late Night with Seth Meyers and scored sweet slots at prestigious festivals like Coachella and Primavera.
Now comes the first official full-length album, Need To Feel Your Love, which finds Sheer Mag trying to navigate the leap from underground heroes to rock ‘n’ roll rat-race participants. They picked killer cover art, gave the thing an actual name and released 12 songs that match the fire and quality of those EPs, even as they’ve shed some lo-fi grime.
As always, there are two anchors of Sheer Mag’s work:
1) Guitarist Kyle Seely’s wellspring of riffs and licks, which sound like they were unearthed from a late-’70s time capsule but somehow never got old. He mostly mines a fairly narrow vein—classic rock, proto-punk, hard soul—but puts the pieces together in inventive and addictive ways.
2) Tina Halladay’s vocals are apparently forever imbued with a combination of tenderness and tough talk that doesn’t come along often. Halladay has a big voice and she uses it skillfully, pushing it to its straining point on populist jams like “Rank & File,” but scaling back the astringency when love and longing is the subject at hand.
On Need To Feel Your Love, resistance and love are common themes, each with their own vibe. Tunes like “Meet Me in the Street” decry “silver spoon suckers” against serrated AC/DC-style guitars, while “Turn It Up,” with its brick-thick riffs and shout-along chorus, basically sounds like Sheer Mag turned a room full of pumping fists into a song. Then there’s “Expect the Bayonet,” a powder keg of ringing guitars, volatile rhythms and Halladay wailing warnings to the powers that be:
Before the world’s been reduced to soot
Solidarity for those underfoot
I better remind ya or you’ll surely regret
And if you don’t give us the ballot
Expect the bayonet
Sheer Mag tends to flex less and strut more on its love songs. The guitar sounds in “Pure Desire” and “Need to Feel Your Love” are more influenced by funk, soul and disco than rock, snapping and moving like Seely’s got a few Chic records in his collection. “Just Can’t Get Enough” spills over with guitar and vocal melodies that shimmer and soar. “Milk & Honey” jangles at a relatively leisurely pace, while “Until You Find the One” reveals the band’s underused twangy streak.
Each of these forays, however, fit seamlessly within the stylized box Sheer Mag has created for itself over the past few years. Which is fine. It’s a killer box. With Need To Feel Your Love, the band broadens its horizons without losing what made ‘em so promising in the first place. That’s always a tricky line to walk, and Sheer Mag does it with gritty grace.