An Interesting Mix of Influences and Genres, but the Band Doesn't Match Their Best Work
The band known as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes has made such an effort to be authentic in the musical genres they have been reviving since their 2007 inception that their songs occasionally border on parody. The band is clearly accurately aping and resurrecting the sounds of 1930s country, 1970s psychedelia, and 1970s classic rock with a healthy helping of folk and gospel linking the chains, but every once in a while the band’s playful wistfulness tends to remind the comedy conscious listener of the scene from Animal House. In this scene, a toga-clad John Belushi becomes so annoyed with a folk singer whining out “The Riddle Song” that he snatches the minstrel’s acoustic guitar and smashes it against the wall hard enough to destroy it (and make Pete Townshend proud) before handing the remains back with a sheepish “Sorry”.
The difference between artistry and parody here is that this band (led by the duo of Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos) is so remarkably passionate about this reconstruction of these sounds that they never quite pass the borderline into silliness. Their remarkably addictive and sweet first single “Home” was a lyrically lovely and musically complex treat that blended classic Folk with alt-country for a decidedly AM radio mono sound that proved to be infinitely listenable. But that was on their first album Up From Below (2009). Their second album Here continued their success in 2012 and led to their self-titled fourth album released in 2013.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes may not have an obvious breakout single like “Home”, but that also may be part of the point, considering the roots-approach the band takes to their music. The “album” was a mainstay for decades, but today cohesive albums are a dying breed. Here the Zeroes attempt to be as diverse and cohesive as possible while playing around with as many genres as possible while working hard not to sound like any other band on the radio.
To this end, the Zeroes kick off their eponymous album with a fusion of gospel and classic soul called “Better Days”. This hopeful composition reads like a therapeutic pep-talk from around a drum circle but sounds like a Motown singer in a Tent Revival. This leads directly into the misleadingly titled “Let’s Get High” which is actually about being “high on love”, a flowerchild-like singalong with just enough modern day profanity to break the illusion that this is a true and legitimate throwback.
The lovey-dovey repetition of “Let’s Get High” carries over to the third track, “Two”, with the refrain of “two voices carry farther than one”. The chorus proceeds “And in the morning, sing me love / And in the afternoon, it’s love / And in the evening, is there love?”, repeating the word “love” more times than the Beatles’ “All you Need is Love”. This is nothing compared to the next song, another hippie-styled flower song called “Please!”, the sparse lyrics of which contain the words “joy”, “love”, “God”, and, of course “please” almost exclusively with occasional connecting words thrown in for the occasional sentence. For all its lyrical sameness, “Please!” does mark the beginning of some of the Zeroes’ best vocal layering, which leads to a deeper musical complexity.
“Country Calling” begins as a simple folk / country song with a soulful male lead vocal over it, until the Zeroes begin to echo The Beatles’ Abbey Road suite with a slowed down “Love you, of you, anything that I might do!”. The layered (yet still deceptively mono) musical layers continue throughout the rest of the song, adding brass horns and additional vocals over the guitar, bass and drums. Imagine Country Joe and the Fish hiring a gospel group to back them on a Beatles cover and you might have an idea what this track has in store.
Without losing their “down home” bend, “Life is Hard” feels like the Zeroes’ version of an orchestral Nat King Cole remake, except that the song is 100% original Edward Sharpe. The piano lead guides the voices of Castrinos and Ebert through an ironic chorus of “come celebrate / Life is hard”. Up until this point on the album, Castrinos’ voice has been sparsely used, except in the backing vocals category, and she sounds amazing here.
The seventh track, “If I were Free” begins as a playful “Yellow Submarine” style song of whimsy, with trippy lyrics and a chorus of off-key harmonies. That is until the second chorus introduces a musical break which almost perfectly imitates a Pink Floyd guitar solo with Gilmour-esque leads over a Waters style bassline before falling right back into the folk-gospel motifs of the rest of the song. The solo, while representing a divergence from the rest of the song, somehow becomes an enticing compliment that invites repeated listens. This leads directly into the horn-heavy, yet otherwise straightforward bass-and-drums song “In the Lion”. This song is enticing and catchy, with lyrics somewhere between “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and a choral chorus that brings back the churchy, revival feel of earlier tracks.
With Motown, the Beatles, Nat King Cole and Pink Floyd covered, “They Were Wrong” apes Leonard Cohen with just a dash of Nick Cave thrown into the mix. The influences are as undeniable as they are obvious, yet Ebert’s voice hits new heights of Elvis-like crooning.
Ebert continues the low voice from “They Were Wrong” in the bass-heavy “In The Summer”, which feels, lyrically, like any old family-friendly summertime tune celebrating ice cream cones, television and plastic cups until the surprising inclusion of “masturbating to Miriam Makeba” in the list. Ah, yes, we are still listening to a 2013 release, not a rediscovered classic single after all.
“Remember to Remember” features one of the very few true lead vocals from Castrinos on a true spiritual track that could be (and probably will be) adapted into a hymn for modern churchgoers with its hippy love-in Earth-belonging counterbalanced with the words “Praise to Love, Praise to God, Call to God for Love”. But the spirituality and positivity of “Remember to Remember” gives way to a depressing final track in the bluesy “This Life”. Ebert takes back the lead vocals to tell us “This life ain’t for me”, “I walked into the black”, and “I’m gonna jump into the fire!” While still enjoying the classic and genre-bending music of bygone eras, “This Life” is about as far from “Home” as one is likely to get.
The end result of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes is an attractive and listenable album that falls short of the stellar heights its namesake band has achieved in the past. There is quite a mix of musical genres and musical influences here which are consistently pleasing to the ear even and especially when the genres and influences take surprising turns and pop up where unexpected. The album could use more featured songs for or duets with Jade Castrinos, whose voice, like Alex Eberts’, is a highlight of the band itself. Still, with the complex musical layering all against a distant mono production, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes may not be the most stellar example of what the title band can do, but is worth a listen to fans of the band and fans of new versions of old styles of music making.