A Sheer Mag concept album? A few years ago, when the Philly quintet was stirring up well-deserved buzz with its bite-sized punk-meets–hard-rock gems, the idea would have seemed far-fetched. But after 2017’s Need to Feel Your Love, an outstanding debut LP that found them tastefully accenting their sound with R&B and funk, the band is back with a more unified set of songs that flow together in a single arc.
To be fair, Sheer Mag have always excelled at storytelling in miniature: From “Fan the Flames,” a sobering look at housing corruption in the band’s hometown, to bittersweet relationship postmortem “Worth the Tears,” their early songs often felt like end-credits tunes summing up a feature film’s worth of emotion. Here, we follow a single character, based on frontwoman Tina Halladay, through personal trials and political awakening.
Lean rocker “Blood From a Stone” introduces us to a character “living check to check,” while the slower-burning “Hardly to Blame” finds her processing a still-fresh breakup. Meanwhile, like the rest of us, she can’t shake tragic images of the refugee crisis in “Unfound Manifest,” and feels solidarity with plight of striking teachers in West Virginia on “Silver Line.” The band bridges that topical divide with ease thanks to an unusual internal partnership: guitarist Matt Palmer writes lyrics from Halladay’s perspective with her guidance and input, yielding intimate yet relatable results, as though the singer were acting in her own biopic.
Halladay is equally convincing when crooning “I’m making it/Day to day but can something please turn up my way,” from “Silver Line,” as she is shrieking on fierce socialist screed “Chopping Block” (“Between the parties, there’s no light/We need workers to unite”). And she’s alternately heart-wrenching and inspiring in “Cold Sword,” which grapples with the legacy of an abusive father, and “The Right Stuff,” a reflection on body image in which she howls, “Baby, I’ve had enough,” and asserts, “I don’t care what they see/Cuz I think of beauty differently.”
The band matches her versatility, venturing from street-tough hard rock á la prime Eighties Judas Priest (opener “Steel Sharpens Steel”) to twinkly retro pop that sounds beamed in from Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage era (“Silver Line”) and a sort of Thin Lizzy–gone-krautrock (hypnotic closer “Keep on Running”). It all hangs together, thanks in large part to the band’s prime musical architects, ever stylish and surprising lead-guitarist Kyle Seely — whose playing somehow fulfills every air-guitar fantasy while perfectly serving the songs — and his brother, crafty bassist-producer Hart.
Building on their prior LP, Sheer Mag broaden their scope just a little more on A Distant Call while retaining the DIY grit and edgy concision that made them so arresting in the first place. This might technically be a concept album, but at 35 minutes, it’s still a punk rager at heart.