Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Music Review: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Up From Below

When this album came out way back in 2009, it was rightfully categorized as a throwback to the free-love lyrics and “let’s just let everybody be in the band, man” mentality of late-60’s folk rock.  The problem is that this has been somehow perceived as a bad thing.  The truth is, Sharpe (or “Alexander” as he’s referred to in character on at least one track’s spoken-word segment) has put together a large party of musicians here who are talented and create songs that sound full and layered without sounding crowded (at least not too often).  The dynamic of the album is also a bit more nuanced than the flower child packaging might at first lead you to believe—whatever bong-water-mellow style you might expect from these guys, the result is something a bit more off kilter.  Take for example the proclamation in the energetic opener “40 Day Dream” where Sharpe sharply warns “No one better pinch me, bitch, I swear” which certainly seems a bit testy for a pothead; I don’t care if he’s being awakened from a 40 day wet dream.

Nevertheless, free love sentimentality certainly blankets much of the album, especially on the excellent single “Home” which finds two lovers proclaiming without irony to each other that “home is wherever I’m with you”.  “Carries On” lays it on thick as well, but with a chorus that’s as singable as it is sparse (you’ll find yourself eagerly waiting for it to come round again as the song unfolds over its five minute run time).  Both tracks sound underproduced and “authentic” in the sense that we seem to remember all of the music of that era having an unpolished quality (whether it did or not depends on who you’re listening to).  The back end of the album surrenders itself to some meandering instrumentals and dull choruses as well.  A couple of tracks will probably speak more to Phish phans and Dead Heads than it does to a casual listener of Buffalo Springfield, but even they aren’t entirely without their charms. 

Alternate Band names: Scuzzy and the Dirtballs, Jesus and the 37 Apostles Who Come and Go Depending on The Supply of Pot, Unshaved Eddie and the Aimless Drifters

On other tracks, like the groovy “Jade”, Sharpe’s voice and stylings seem to have more in common with a Vegas crooner than with Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young.  He has a deep, full voice which takes control of the best songs on the album.  Here it pays powerful tribute to a beautiful woman, “the girl of the hour”.  The song is also one of several to utilize south-of-the-border arrangements with horns or guitar accompaniments that accent nicely and add depth without taking over the tracks themselves.  Similar arrangements make something memorable out of the clever “Black Water” which sounds like an old west ballad by way of Tom Jones (and features guns, steel, and “the germs of love” in place of the usual dark-haired beauty as the subject of the chorus).

Those small eccentricities aside though, ESatMZ have created an album that would have nuzzled right into the landscape it harkens back to and might have grabbed a few top radio play spots at the same time.  The Darkness were well received with their first album, the glorious gut-punch of Permission to Land, before being critically mocked for daring to put out a second album packed with similar bygone-era rock numbers.  The difference with Sharpe and company (besides working in a different genre) is that the critics seem to have decided that we don’t need anyone bringing back even ONE album worth of hippie music, and so the honeymoon that The Darkness enjoyed has been skipped here entirely.  It’s unfortunate because this album is full of excellent tracks and subtle touches which could find a modern day audience easily.  There’s a reason, after all, that every big city has at least one classic rock station somewhere on the dial.

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