The review for Sheer Mag’s Playing Favorites album: A rousing advancement by a highly regarded American band of our time.

Estimated read time 4 min read


In 2015, Sheer Mag of Philadelphia collaborated with a small Brooklyn punk label to release their second EP. The lead track, “Fan the Flames”, was a standout song that diverged from the typical sound of punk. Instead, it was reminiscent of mainstream hard rock from the early days of punk, with hints of Thin Lizzy and possibly Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lead guitarist Kyle Seely’s playing style evoked phrases like “laying down tasty licks”. However, the overall sound was lo-fi and heavily distorted, including the potent and soulful vocals of Tina Halladay. Upon closer examination, the lyrics delivered a powerful message against corrupt landlords and gentrification. What made Sheer Mag stand out even more was their lack of social media presence and refusal to grant press interviews, adding to the sense that they were a unique band unlike any other at the time.

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The artwork for Playing Favorites.View image in fullscreen

After a period of limited media engagement, Sheer Mag has released two albums, developing their distinct blend of throwback hard and soft rock, punk and garage elements, political messages, impressive guitar skills, and lead singer Halladay’s powerful vocals. Both their 2017 release “Need to Feel Your Love” and 2019’s “A Distant Call” have received high praise, particularly for their incorporation of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and call for socialist revolution. However, their latest release “Playing Favorites” is a departure from their usual sound. Originally planned as a disco EP, the band has stated it was a way to cope with personal struggles through uplifting music. These origins can still be heard in the lyrics, which touch on emotional turmoil and Halladay’s troubled relationship with her father, as well as in the music itself. The disco influence shines through in tracks like “All Lined Up” and “Mechanical Garden”, which seamlessly blend powerpop, orchestral elements, and funky grooves. The song “Moonstruck” also deviates from its country rock introduction to an upbeat dancefloor anthem, featuring a catchy melody with a nod to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”.

The music surpassed its original intention, including songs that match Halladay’s definition of the band’s unique selling point – a lack of straightforward rock anthems in today’s music scene. However, it may be argued that this view diminishes the true essence of Sheer Mag’s sound. While Eat It and Beat It is rooted in classic American blue-collar rock, it lacks the genre’s traditional male bravado and instead channels simmering frustration with society’s current state. While it serves as a call to action for a new generation of rock bands, it also reflects on societal injustices, as seen in the lyrics “Don’t bother with the referee, it’s all going back to the company.” This approach has historical precedent (as evidenced by the band’s admiration for Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law, a song that expresses rage towards unemployment in 1980s Britain), but remains relevant and powerful.

The moments on Playing Favorites where Sheer Mag expands their sound are notable. This is evident in tonal shifts, such as the introduction of a celeste on Tea on the Kettle and the use of a tumbling acoustic guitar on the title track. Additionally, there is a stronger pop influence present. Despite this, the band still maintains their signature distorted sound, reminiscent of recording in a bedroom with a cheap 8-track tape. However, lead singer Halladay’s snarl is pulled back and there is a noticeable sweetness in the melodies of Golden Hour and closer When You Get Back. The latter is especially impressive with its vocal harmonies and joyful twin guitars that have a Thin Lizzy-esque quality. Overall, every aspect of the album is well done. While some may criticize the softer moments, it is difficult to see this argument gaining much support. Even at its most melodic, Playing Favorites remains fierce and raw, showcasing the band’s ability to evolve without losing their essence.

29 songs.
This week, Alexis heard 29 songs.

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