Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Up From Below
One of my favorite novels of the last decade is Drop City, by that sharp-witted satirist of pop culture, T.C. Boyle. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s the gist: a group of hippies living on a farm in northern California circa 1970 get forced off their land because of zealous code enforcement officers, hop on a psychedelic school bus, and head to Alaska to stake their claim to a new life and future.
Up From Below, an album by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, is that band of drugged-out gypsies come to life, complete with psychedelic bus, but without the irony.
From the album cover evoking a portrait of the cast from Hair frolicking on the beach, to the scruffy hippie costumes, to the earnest thanks to all the spirit guides who led this group on their journey, this material is ripe for satire. But the performers here take it all so gosh-darned earnestly. Even the music has a feel-good, Melanie Safka “Candles in the Wind” vibe.
The music itself is bad. Technically speaking, it’s fine. Earthy, rootsy, earnest folksy acoustic guitar strumming with a smattering of horns and piano. Large group vocals on gospel-like choruses. At their best, as in the standout single “Home,” they evoke the sound of large, ramshackle collectives like Arcade Fire. At their worst, they churn out utterly white bread suburban hippie fare from the 1970s that make me want to reach for my bong and tie-dye t-shirt.
And I guess that’s intentional. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros produced one of those conceptual albums that taxes your patience and encourages you to buy into the fantasy world being created by these erstwhile granola eaters and tree huggers.
Created by Alex Ebert, leader of the power pop group Ima Robot, Edward Sharpe is an ensemble project that debuted in 2007 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. How’s that for invoking the ghosts of the cowboy hippie singer-songwriter vibe of the past?
After getting out of a 12-step rehab program Ebert started working on the Sharpe persona, a Messianic figure come to save the Earth who keeps getting distracted by his libido. Kinda like Ziggy Stardust, but without all that glam make up, platform boots, and glitter.
Ebert met singer Jade Castrinos in 2009, and the band toured the country in a white school bus. Somebody please pass the Kool-Aid, quick!
This concept could have been an intriguing set-up if it hadn’t already been done before by better and more talented musicians, starting with the afore-mentioned David Bowie, creator of alter ego Ziggy Stardust.
Kevin Barnes successfully rebooted the whole alter ego thing for the 21st century when he created the transgendered glam star Georgie Fruit, who occasionally steps in as lead singer for Of Montreal. Sure, Georgie Fruit rose out of the ashes of Ziggy Stardust, but in both cases the ideas and music are both infinitely more inventive than what’s offered here on Up From Below.
If you want to really groove on this album, I recommend you drink the Kool-Aid.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros: www.edwardsharpeandthemagneticzeros.com