Showing posts with label edward sharpe and the magnetic zeros. Show all posts
Showing posts with label edward sharpe and the magnetic zeros. Show all posts

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

album review: 'the flaming lips and heady fwends' by the flaming lips

Short version: it's incredibly weird and the mix of the psychedelic and avant-garde will throw some people off, but in terms of beautifully coherent and powerful art, you're not going to find a better album this year. Highly recommended.

Have you ever contemplated the end of the world?

It may seem like a vague, strange, almost-silly question, drenched in unfortunate implications and terrible pop culture (particularly in this year), but it's something that's fascinated the thinkers, great and small, throughout time. Everyone wonders what the end of the world would be like, what will happen to this tiny planet suspended in the galactic cosmos. Less often is the question of what one would do at the end of the world, and outside of Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, a Steve Carrell/Keira Knightley movie that's currently one of my most anticipated movies of the summer, most people don't have good answers to the question. Why?

Well, perhaps because the question is loaded, because you're not only forced to contemplate your death in the question, but the chance that everything around you, everything you've ever cherished and loved, will be gone with you. No memories left behind, no fond recollections, no legacy, no... nothing. It was what Melancholia tried (and arguably failed) to capture - the possibility that everything you've ever done will amount to precisely nothing as everything you define as existence collapses and vanishes around you - ultimately, what does everything mean then?

The closest I've ever heard to capturing this vision was the prog/space metal epic from Ayreon 01011001, but that album's themes were more linked to the greater questions of human existence and the significance of life, lacking the necessary focus to truly contemplate this question in any significant detail. I'd also argue the album, while very strong, didn't quite nail down the necessary emotions to truly encapsulate what makes this question so significant. That album, loaded with bombast and intensity, didn't quite capture the little emotions, the quiet thoughts that were necessary to make the question truly resonate. Because, like it or not, not all of us have the courage or force of will to stare straight into the apocalypse with open arms.

The Flaming Lips have the courage, and with their newest album, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, they probably do the most thorough and deep exploration of the question that I've ever heard, with collaborators on every track to lend additional facets to the digression.

And it's glorious.