Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Unpacking the Sheer Mag Trilogy

Dirty Shoes returns with a look at the excellent trio of records from new punk staples Sheer Mag.
By    April 26, 2016

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Douglas Martin owns a 1981 Chevy El Camino. He does donuts in it sometimes.


PROLOGUE


Philadelphia’s Sheer Mag sound best blasting through the speakers of a late 80s Pontiac. Lately, there has been a sub-sub-genre of the punk-leaning, garage-leaning rock underground turning up dive bars and whipping donuts in the parking lots. Most notable in the little corner of music is King Tuff, whose Was Dead was destined to be a slept-on classic until Kyle Thomas signed with Sub Pop years later and people retroactively fell under the charms of his 2008 debut. All due respect to Kyle Thomas (and bands like Warm Soda, who came into semi-prominence with a John Dwyer co-sign), but Sheer Mag has actively resisted mainstream courtship thus far and have still become one of the most talked about bands in America’s DIY rock network.

Sheer Mag played industry bacchanalia SXSW on the Lamar Street Pedestrian Bridge at three o’clock in the morning—the same place Thee Oh Sees played in 2010 right before they exploded in popularity (ahem, after a solid two years of me telling you they should be your favorite band). They were included in Rolling Stone’s 10 Great Modern Punk Bands feature, which would have been a laughable ordeal five or even three years ago, but like them or not, the publication is taking baby steps approaching some semblance of the cultural relevance they once had.

Despite the aforementioned rejection of mainstream indie’s romantic overtures, Sheer Mag—a fervently DIY band who sells their EPs on Bandcamp for less than what you paid for lunch yesterday—was offered a spot at Coachella, desert vacation destination du jour of models, Hollywood celebrities, and a bevy of music fans with too much money to spend.

If you knew anything about them before, the thought of Sheer Mag playing Coachella would seem like Run the Jewels playing a Donald Trump benefit. But we shouldn’t begrudge a band making Coachella money on their own terms. If Coachella came waving around that paycheck, holding a sum that could change our lives, we’d be hitting Bank of America with the quickness on Monday.

So the question is—as it always is with bands whom have built an A1 reputation startlingly fast—does the music hold up to the hype? Not only is the music good, but I would dare say it’s pretty vital, using 70’s populist riffs as a Trojan Horse for a barrage of insightful takes both personal and political.


I.


There have been a great deal of comparisons to Oakland underground greats Shannon and the Clams in the Sheer Mag conversation, and I would say the only time the passing resemblance reveals itself is on the first Sheer Mag EP, released in 2014. Part of that is because the band believes in the art of song structure, another is because singer Tina Halladay is as expressive and charismatic a singer as Clams frontwoman Shannon Shaw (who is, for my money, the best singer in guitar music today). But that’s more or less where the obvious likenesses end, except for the fact both bands write endlessly enjoyable songs good enough to not make you feel embarrassed for describing them as rock ‘n roll.

The first EP—which is sort of unclear if it’s supposed to be self-titled or called 7”, but that’s a frivolous point of semantics—is a fascinating mid-point between swagger and self-doubt, some of the most confident songs played in recent memory about sitting around and crying all day, sleeping on soon-to-be-ex-lovers’ floors, and the genetic trait of holding a grudge. “What You Want” details that messy part of a breakup where you’re still cohabiting and should very much move on, but are holding onto the relationship with two fingers like a washed-out heirloom in your front yard, caked with dirt and dog shit and bygone memories.

Throughout the EP, hard times are had, whiskey gets guzzled, and a white breeze is blowing through the streets, signaling the nationwide sweep of gentrification. Guitarist Kyle Seely’s riffs are chunky, and Halladay sings of both uncontrollable crying and leaving her mark on the world. Her confidence outmatches her depression here, though. A twinkle gleams in her eye as she sips her brown liquor after a period of being “sober as a judge,” promising to “sock it to ya” until the end of your days. Somewhere, Missy Elliot has a twinkle in her eye too.

Even through the talk of emotional and financial struggle in “Sit and Cry,” Halladay offers aplomb worthy of being a rap song’s central lyric: “‘85 pickup and a hound dog by my side / At least ten boys can fit in the back / And I know a few more wanna take that ride.” Who needs a Benz when you can fit a sports team’s worth of cuties in the back of a Silverado?


II.


The self-evident truth, and this goes for just about anything in life, is that a few months of practice will work wonders for your confidence. On II—a recurring title choice Led Zeppelin would have been extraordinarily proud of through 1971—Sheer Mag’s confidence as musicians and as songwriters leaped an impressive distance. As mentioned a few keyboard clicks ago, confidence is not something the band lacked in their initial outing by any means.

Excepting audio quality (and if this not your first time reading this column, you know I’ve made a pretty lengthy run here not giving a shit about that), it’s hard to say the band lacked much of anything. Even still, the band improved in every imaginable quality on their second release, which is why the name Sheer Mag started cropping up as the latest in a lineage of bands like Royal Headache, Milk Music, and Total Control. In other words, when Sheer Mag dropped II, they were anointed a Band to Watch.

Bold moves are the province of the confident. You know what’s a bold move? Matching the Jackson 5 pretty much note-for-note while retaining your own identity. Singing like “I Want You Back”-era Michael if he ingested too much secondhand smoke while calling for an uprising against that white fog seeping through our streets.

There are ornate front door structures neighboring boarded up houses. The song closes with the image of people who went through hell to get their real estate license (most every realtor says they “went through hell” to get their real estate license) turning their backs and shaking hands while human beings literally burn. “Fan the Flames” is an endlessly catchy pop tune about rioting to stop gentrification. You wouldn’t believe how much fun I had writing that sentence.

The main theme of II is standing up for yourself in the face of society’s crushing ambitions and expectations. By the end of “Travelin’ On,” Halladay is all clenched fists and grit teeth. “Whose Side Are You On” and “Button Up” are questions of what you will do in the face of oppression. The former is pretty self-explanatory but no less thrilling, arguably the best song on the EP musically, thanks to the rest of the band (Allan Chapman on drums, Hart Seely on bass, and Matt Palmer on rhythm guitar) locking all their parts together and planting their feet firmly in the track for Halladay’s soul-clearing voice and Kyle Seely’s indelible guitar line. “I know you’ll be with us when you make them pay” speaks to the part of us who know we have to fight for what we stand for.

“Button Up” opens with the question: “When you see something that makes you sick / Do you button up or you bleed?” The song is a rave-up of both party-rock and defiant feminist pride. In being on the outside of society’s beauty standards and behavior (Halladay notes they don’t like the way she walks, talks, dresses, or does her hair), she refuses to bite her lip and curtsey, noting, “I’m a bad bitch if I please” and, “I brought many a man to his knees.” It’s a message of empowerment, inspiring us to give the Stone Cold Salute to these false standards.


III.


“Can’t Stop Fighting” features the type of things that should make us want to fight with everything we’ve got in us: A woman gone missing, a man committed of a brutal crime with no motive. (Think about all the times violence has happened at the hands of women “just because.” I don’t have to tell you how disgusting it is.) In the third verse, Halladay belts, “All my life, I’ve felt the eyes of the catcall.”

She’s pointing out disturbing truths about how women are treated in society through the trojan horse of what people of our generation have somewhat-lovingly (but sometimes derisively) refer to as “cock-rock.” It’s a subversive, radical act, bottled up by a top-down solo featuring the harmonization of two guitars.

“Everything we do, they do their best to repeal it,” Halladay sings on “Night Isn’t Bright.” Although the message is just as trenchant—on their two most recent releases, they’ve had no problem with insightful, political lyrics—the music doesn’t do much to match up to it. There’s that solo, which is a true exercise in technique, but the music itself sounds a bit too standard for a band that already has would-be anthems under their belt. “Nobody’s Baby” suffers from the same fate, just a tad too reliant on the 70’s rock formula to be one of their best efforts, but lyrically and vocally hits the emotional depth displayed, a classic song about heartbreak whose chorus sounds like someone is trying to convince themselves rather than a true assertion.

“Worth the Tears” is the closest thing Sheer Mag comes to a late-album ballad; the intro has those chords that make you instantly think of the penultimate scene of some indie rom-com, where the guy is running somewhere in order to right a wrong perpetrated on the recipient of his affection. Here, though, Halladay is dealing with an uncommunicative lover, stubborn in his refusal to share his feelings, finally landing on the acceptance of him not coming back. And when she belts the line of “The time we had was worth the tears that you made me cry,” it’s both the EP’s catchiest and most emotional moment.


EPILOGUE


Sheer Mag starting to figure out how to match up the craft of writing and recording songs with their talent has been a fascinating growth to witness over the past year and a half. The great thing about this band growing is that they haven’t settled into a discernable formula yet. They’re still seeing what works for them, and at this point, not much doesn’t. It’s interesting that on the first EP, the middle two songs are the best, on II, the last two songs are the best, and on III, the first two songs are the best. For all intents and purposes, II is Sheer Mag’s best release so far, with every song being the band at their highest level, although Halladay as a lyricist comes further into her own on the band’s third release.

Sometimes, saying “believe the hype” is a trite assertion at best, but Sheer Mag is a band making great work, and at some point in their career could very well be considered an important band, regardless of whether or not they sign that big-money deal with a label. Sometimes talent just can’t be denied.