SHEER MAG – “Blood from a Stone” & “Hardly to Blame”

One morning, around 4 a.m. in May of 2017, a 2-alarm fire destroyed a cookie-cutter pop-up OCF townhouse in Point Breeze. It took 75 firefighters about an hour to be able to control the flames. OCF Realty is one of the faces of fancy facade gentrification crawling through Philadelphia, and few bands rock against that movement more than Philly’s homegrown Sheer Mag. Whatever entity created that fire might be living in their basement – they waste no time teasing the existence of such power in their new, much-awaited singles, “Blood from a Stone” and the just-released “Hardly to Blame.”

This isn’t an unfamiliar Sheer Mag; they’re still relying on that distorted guitar crunch and natural groove. The band usually has two modes of song subject – “fuck the man,” or “punk love song,” and both of these fall with the latter, save for some working-class shout-outs (“what do you expect when you’re living check to check?”) Tina Halladay, the vocalist with the air power of every South Philly smoking bar combined, drives these tracks with her distinctive snarl, which retains its live strength even in recordings. The refrain for ‘Blood’ is catchy, relatable, and maybe a little mystical: “to get some comfort from my aching heart/is like blood from a stone.”

The song structure for the first single follows a simple verse-chorus tradeoff (plus a twangy guitar solo), and while it doesn’t offer much in striking band evolution, it does hint at a step towards a more expansive sonic environment. I find myself drawn to the couple very brief moments of synthscape, which suspend the listener in a moment of glam-garage mystery. There are also the little additions of harmonies – the “ooohs” in the chorus are something I’ve never heard the band do before. The production seems a step further towards clarity, which is only natural for a band steadily growing in popularity. 

This song doesn’t wow me any more than their past hits have. It’s strong, catchy as hell, and leaves me wanting more – which is what keeps me coming back to it. The track is a well-crafted tease of what’s (hopefully) to come August 23rd when their new album A Distant Call drops. Sheer Mag excels at balancing grit and pop styles, and ‘Blood from a Stone’ is a triumph on that front. 

‘Hardly to Blame,’ the second single from the upcoming album, immediately confirms my suspicions: we may be able to expect a bigger sound from Sheer Mag. There’s something about the sonic placement of the instruments and sounds that marks a noticeable difference from their typical sound. During the intro, breaks, and choruses, they use more reverb than I’ve seen before. A plucked guitar floats above the fuzzy, upfront chords, and Tina’s voice rings out further than usual. And harmonies in the chorus! Instead of a singular focus on extremely catchy guitar riffs, ‘Hardly to Blame’ feels like much more of a cohesive, well-put-together song. This track feels less rushed than the first, and while the subject matter is similar (heart troubles), the more sensitive and inviting temperament sets it apart.

Plus, a South Philly reference: “15th and Moore is where I started to trip / when you caught me at the door, I swore / I just can’t take it all the time…” You ever go through relationship troubles in Point Breeze? Because same. 

This band is reliably kickass, and I’m glad to hear something a little different from their usual grinding glam rock. While I wish that the album was released earlier so that I could have been bopping it all this summer, maybe it’s best they waited until after the heatwave. The fire that they’re channeling is likely to have me sweating. A Distant Call comes out August 23rd – be prepared, and don’t leave your matches lying around. 

Pros: 

  • Thoughtful building of sonic dynamics from the first single to the second
  • Successful inclusion of harmonies, further meshing pop and garage rock

Cons:

  • Their steps into a new direction could have gone further

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