When the Beatles were finally fed up with their mop-top facade, and had enjoyed the international success of newly-released Revolver, they needed a change. They needed something to elevate their game. Not just to change their image but to keep the band together. Each member split for a couple months and went around the world doing their own things. Harrison played sitar with Ravi Shankar, Lennon met Yoko Ono at an art exposition, and McCartney wrote a song called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Ringo did… something. Out of this dissociative sentiment arose the Sgt. Pepper alter ego that reconciled the band’s intangible drives and began the quartet on a path to absolute artistic transcendence. The Beatles fully delved into this persona, frequently performing under the moniker and trying to take as giant a leap forward as possible. If it weren’t for this catalyst that effectively changed their image, and their purpose, who knows if the Beatles would have survived and continued on to becoming the most important musical artists in contemporary music.
The use of alter egos has been documented for over a thousand years and spans a spectrum from a simple nom de plume to resolute belief in the existence of a separate self (see: Dissociative Identity Disorder). In the mid-2000’s L.A. native Alexander Ebert, indulgent in the excesses, artistic application, and cerebral freedoms of post-60’s California, found himself addicted to drugs more powerful than man. Long, lean and clean Edward Sharpe descended from on high, instilling himself into Ebert as a personal messiah and with great purpose Sharpe pulled Ebert away from his drugs, gave him the courage to approach Jade Castrinos outside of an L.A. street side cafe, and helped Ebert focus his mental energy towards the “healing of mankind” through music. He forged a musicians’ collective entitled the Magnetic Zeros which began touring the country as a modern-day incarnation of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters but with a stronger sense of solidarity as musicians and less-so a bunch of acid-dropping ruffians. Like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros gave Ebert the wherewithal to transfigure his status as a down-and-out beatnik to hippie cultural icon who spends his days encouraging the acceptance and happiness of all people with love. A beautiful sentiment, a beautiful story, and certainly the kind of tale that keeps a band relevant album after album.
It’s tough to know how much Ebert believes in Sharpe. But after much thought, it just doesn’t seem to matter. If you watch the documentary Big Easy Express, you see a collection of exuberant young musicians following the lead of the enigmatic Sharpe with a warmth that’s at once uplifting and encouraging. This comes out in the music which pulls from late 60’s groups like the Mamas and the Papas, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and merges this folky tendency with early 2000’s indie groups like Arcade Fire and, to some extent, “big indie group” pioneers Broken Social Scene and The Polyphonic Spree. With each album, the Magnetic Zeros garner more fans and tour relentlessly with magnanimous live performances that end up as huge sing-alongs and overall feel-goodery.
Where Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros succeed with their ambitious cultural image and forceful performances, they generally hit the middle of the road with their albums. Their third release, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Vagrant, 2013) returns to more of the choral yelps and youthful force of their debut Up From Below but retains some of the mellower, stripped down acoustic sensibilities of their sophomore effort Here. Like their previous efforts, the album is front-loaded with great tracks that engage the listener with catchy vocal melodies showcasing Ebert’s interactions with his cohort’s backing vocals. With standard guitar work, bouncy bass lines and obligatory piano and trumpet flourishes, there’s plenty of fanciful sound for the ear. But the music is safe. It’s good, safe music. One wishes the album took more chances, revealing their influences less overtly.
And where’s Jade’s vocals on this record? She’s the necessary counterpart! Her vocals are not prominent on this record and the overall gestalt suffers for it. She’s the better vocalist between the two leads, and though Ebert’s delivery has great conviction, her’s is rootsy and enchanting and captures the show in a live setting. And here, it’s mostly absent unfortunately. Basically, this is a consistent trend for this record: they fail to relate their live sound to the studio cuts. Where’s Nora’s accordion? Where’s Stewart’s uke? Hand-drumming? Did they lose the didgeridoo somewhere on route 66? The sound is too placated, too safe, and ultimately less impactful than their live dynamics in which all these nuances shine brightly.
Some strong successes show up on here, though. The second track “Let’s Get High” presents joyously absurd lyrics and has a momentum expected of the band’s hefty size. Third track “Two” again centers on the fictitious relationship between Sharpe and Jade which always steals the show for its personality, even if the song is kinda formulaic and overly easy-going. “If I Were Free” has strong momentum shifts and contrasts a wood flute solo with 70’s prog-rock guitar. Actually, there might be too much electric guitar on this record. My personal favorite is the sophisticated ninth track “They Were Wrong” in which the band finally returns to a style most successfully employed previously on “Desert Song.” The depth of sound they attain with quick finger-picked minor chord guitar and reverb laden clarinet wafting over floor tom heavy percussion is immediately enrapturing and worth several repeats.
Less memorable tracks suffer from samey-samey. “Country Calling” rehashes the melody line from “Two” but without Jade-centric singing. “In the Summer” has dull organ lines and underdeveloped vocal lines. “Life is Hard” is ambitious and emotive, to its credit, but is insufferably un-listenable for its dissonant vocal/organ mashup mid-chorus.
Essentially, this album is about on par with their first two. It’s got great sentiment, it’s sunny and satisfying. It excels as a soundtrack for a week as you go about your life. It’s tough to be doleful while listening to the Magnetic Zeros, under any circumstances. But knowing the story behind the band and what they represent is essential, otherwise their music could be passed over by the hurried listener for failing to reach a memorable sustain of other bands by their musical merit alone. The band has so much character, it would serve them well in the long run to take more chances at displaying their uniqueness in the studio setting.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl Senior Writer