Tuesday, July 23, 2013

album review: 'edward sharpe and the magnetic zeros' by edward sharpe and the magnetic zeros

Today, let's talk about the hippie movement.

As someone who has always had an interest in cultural demographics, I've always been a little fascinated by the hippie movement, particularly considering its presence in the music of the late 60s and throughout most of the 70s. So many great acts of the era can be linked directly to it and the countercultural force it was for a brief time. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Janis Joplin, hell, pretty much all of the psychedelic rock genre owes its existence and most of its fanbase to the free love, free drugs, inner peace nirvana that the hippie movement preached. In terms of an era where cultural progressives owned the industry (rather than the other way around), it was unlike any other.

So what the hell happened? Well, pretty much what anyone with a brain could have expected. The 'intellectuals' of the hippie movement went into prog rock and avant-garde music that became too pretentious to be sustainable, the music industry digested the musical and visual aesthetic and dumbed it down for the mainstream, and midway through the 70s, a group of angry punks smashed whatever free love was left to pieces. It's a sad testament to the legacy of the hippies that Seth MacFarlane was able to sum it up aptly in the words of his talking dog on Family Guy: 'We lost the values but we kept the weed'.

Now to be completely fair, there were always gaping holes in the hippie ideology that you could fly a spaceship through, namely a complete ignorance of consequences to all the free love and free drugs. The pacifism was nice, but human nature made it abundantly clear that pacifist thinking and radical politics weren't a combination built to last (the radicalization of the leftist movements in the 70s proved this). Speaking on the topic of the philosophy, most of it was a product of the drugs and lifestyle that spawned it, and was thus incoherent, unfocused, and surprisingly shallow - without a clear message, there was never going to be societal change on the scale the hippies wanted. And on the political side (most commonly recognized as the Yippies), there may have been some movement towards social and racial equality (driven by some of the great leaders for social change of the time), but without changes on the institutional level, most of the greater 'change' died in a sputtering heap. And as for the progressive movement... well, I'll just let Will McAvoy from Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom explain (along with some rightfully required ruminations on the Tea Party):

The sad thing is that he's not wrong about any of it, hippies or Tea Party (yeah, I said it), and you can go further and trace this to how 'hippie music' and psychedelic rock suffered their painful decline throughout the 70s. But what I think was more damaging was how the image of the hippie movement was further ridiculed as 'out-of-touch' or so high that any fragments of coherent or interesting ideology is drowned out in baked-out nonsense. And really, that bugs the hell out of me, because there were nuggets of real truth and wisdom, about the human condition in that culture that gets swept away and ignored. Now I'm not exactly surprised that material was ignored - often times it was more grounded and had some serious teeth - but it was enough to justify the hippie movement's philosophy, if not its execution.

And funnily enough, issues with problematic execution are where I always used to stand on Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, another band I'd categorize as a 'silent majority' act that broke through in 2009 with their debut Up From Below. A musical project run by singer-songwriter Alex Ebert, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros resemble nothing less than an act attempting to recapture the 60s hippie aesthetic, but never quite grasping the meat of the message. 

Now don't get me wrong, I like what this band represents, and there are definitely elements of their material that I find extremely compelling. For an act that debuted in 2009, they sure as hell do a good job sounding like an act from the golden era of psychedelic rock, particularly in production. I like the interplay between the vocalists, I like the harmonies and the stomping choruses, I like the breadth of instrumentation, and I even like some of the more ridiculous and grandiose moments that only seem to work half of the time. If anything, what makes Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros stand out to me is their musical 'texture', particularly on their first album - the mix is organic and layered masterfully, yet done in a way that we don't see the seams. I don't know who does the production work for this band, but Jimmy Eat World needs to hire them as soon as possible!

But unfortunately, I know the exact reasons why Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes never worked for me: there was never any edge. Sure, the music had the sound of a hippie record, but there was no edge or hint that their lyrics meant anything, or were going to take any chances - in fact, any attempt they did try to stretch themselves lyrically on Up From Below they sounded laughably out of their depth. They did try to improve things with their second record Here, but in doing so, they also cut back on the larger scope and feel of the band, and some of the texture leaked away. If I might make a TV comparison, the second season of The Newsroom has a lot fewer mistakes than the first, but it also lost some of the grandiose bombast and utter insanity that made that first season so compellingly watchable. Simply put, if you shoot lower, you're going to fail less, but your successes won't mean as much either. 

What Here also revealed for the band was that the project's focus was solely on Alex Ebert. Now, granted, some of this was bound to come out - the album was a concept piece exploring one's difficulties with religion and spirituality - but with that knowledge comes a lack of inclusiveness that really runs contrary to the hippie ideal. Any attempts at having Ebert balanced by the other vocalists just fell painfully flat because it was so obvious where the lyrical focus was fixed. And while the album might have had a more coherent tone and narrative throughline, it still lacked the edge that would truly make the album distinctive. 

So a year after that album's release, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have come back with a self-titled album two into their career, something that just happens to be a serious pet peeve of mine. Does the band manage to overcome that peeve and create something of substance?

Youtube review after the jump

Well, almost. In fact, I'd argue Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros do enough with this album to come tantalizing close to that meaningful hippie record for which I was hoping. I wouldn't quite call a classic, and the truly great records of the year have nothing to worry about, but I definitely liked more than I expected and would probably place this self-titled album as my favourite of their discography so far.

So what changed? Well, where their previous album was defined by tighter control, this one went in the exact opposite direction. The songs are more free-flowing, the instrumentation is more varied than ever, and while I wouldn't dare call this album anywhere close to focused or political, I will say it finally took the necessary step to gain the edge it desperately needed. Raw, distorted guitar finally has a place of prominence in the mix - and you won't believe how much authenticity that adds alone - and where Here had smoothed, seamless edges, this album has visible cracks, most apparent in the instrumentation and the hippie atmosphere it's aiming to create.

And really, the fact that the album still manages to feel organic and attain some form of flow is a testament to how strong the instrumentation and production manage to come together, particularly during the song transitions. There are still a few points where I feel the vocals could be better served higher in the mix, but those places are few and far between. More importantly, the rougher, expansive sound seems to be a better fit for the band, as it gives them a chance to develop the hooks that were absent on the previous album. I still think the band is crying out for a stronger instrumental face away from Alex Ebert, but this was a definite step in the right direction. 

And for the most part, I don't have any issues with the vocal delivery either. The rougher production only gives Alex Ebert's wild yowling more presence, and it seems Jade Castrinos slightly toned back the screechier elements in her voice that annoyed me on Here. If I were to nitpick, I'd say Alex Ebert is still trying to sound a bit too much like Bob Dylan instead of forging a vocal identity for himself, but I'm tempted to give him a pass here because - like it or not - it fits the music damn near perfectly. A bigger complaint is that with the greater chorus of vocalists, inevitably some individual personality is lost, but then again, it does fit the tone.

So let's move onto Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' typical big glowing weak spot: the lyrics and theme. And I'll say from a purely technical songwriting point-of-view, I've had issues with this band since the very beginning. When the lyrics weren't incoherent or embarrassing, they were utterly self-obsessed, and for some bizarre reason, Alex Ebert feels the urge to interject swearing in his songs where it doesn't fit. I had the same issue with Maroon 5's album last year. As I've said before, for a swear word to have impact, it should be delivered with some punch or emphasis, and injecting them into lyrics to fill out the meter just smacks of lazy songwriting.

Fortunately, Ebert seems to have learned a bit and has curbed this tendency a bit. In fact, of all of the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros albums I've listened through, this one would probably have the best songwriting of the group's career thus far, at least in the ratio of meaningful songs to inanity. Sure, the poet in me still has nitpicks, but I'm inclined to overlook them if only because it does fit the rougher, more slapdash style of this album. And even more surprising is the fact that many songs actively take a dive into what one would consider 'hippie' topics: getting high, free love, the dangers of naked self-interest, and acceptance of those different from ourselves. 

Hell, with the inclusion of tracks like 'Better Days', 'Life Is Hard', 'If I Were Free' and 'This Life', I'd make the argument that Alex Ebert is not just writing about hippie culture, but also providing some criticism on the ugly elements of it. He openly attacks laziness, self-delusion, and selling out with righteous fury and more importantly, includes himself in the criticism. It adds volumes to an act's likability to include oneself as part of the problem (as both Kacey Musgraves and Kanye West discovered this year), and considering the last album was as self-obsessed as it was, this is a definite step in the right direction.

And while I wouldn't say there are many tracks on this album that have 'single potential', there seems to be a narrative throughline to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros that I found rather interesting. Beginning with a meditation on the 'good ole days', the band attempts to recapture that special feeling by getting high. This delirious high continues for a few tracks, but then begins to crystallize into some genuine insight. But midway through the album, there are sounds of the city lurking, and one could interpret some of that background narration at the end of 'If I Were Free' as the 'sellout moment'. Then, for the second half of the album, the songs become more and more inane (and unfortunately, not quite as good) or darker ('They Were Wrong' stands out here) until the finale track 'This Life', where Ebert is called on his self-interest. With the word 'LIAR' screamed at him by his band, he finally realizes that he's not in the business of music for himself, but for the world. And while I will admit that it makes the album feel just like another way for Alex Ebert to deal with his demons, here it's more compelling and less faux-messianic than on his previous album.

So in short, I actually will recommend Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I won't say it's anywhere close to perfect, and I'm a little annoyed that Alex Ebert didn't take his understanding of the hippie mindset and apply it to a modern context (I think the band would have more singularly unique flavour if they did), but it's definitely very good and an unique presence in music today. One thing is for sure, the rougher, rawer sound definitely works for the band and I'm looking forward to seeing just how far they push that edge.

So as much as I've condemned and criticized hippies in this little piece, I do believe there's a place for some of that ideology. We need to think about more than just ourselves, find a deeper meaning in our lives beyond money, and peace and love never hurt anyone. We could with reclaiming some of those values along with the weed, and I'm happy that Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are willing to carry that torch.

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