Review Summary: C'mon get happy with some stinking hippies. Or don't.
Much like Bowie had to transition to Ziggy Stardust in order to properly express his view and make that transitional quantum leap in his career, so too did Alexander Ebert have to become Edward Sharpe. After fizzling out with passing fad dance-punks Ima Robot, Ebert took himself off to rehab, moved out of his house and broke up with his girlfriend. All the while, he was meticulously creating an entirely new character for himself. He has described Edward Sharpe as a messiah "sent down to Earth to kinda heal and save mankind". Confused? Up From Below
, the debut album from Sharpe and his band The Magnetic Zeros, is probably only going to make things worse. Part Plastic Ono Band, part Polyphonic Spree and part Hooray For Everything (Simpsons fans will understand), Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes' undying love for the world around them sure is sweet, but that doesn't stop it from getting overly-similar and annoying at times.
The album begins with a major-chord rock shuffle and the announcement that Ebert (now fully transitioned into Sharpe) has been "sleeping for forty days" on 40 Day Dream - and wouldn't you know it, "this dream is amazing". The track is a vivacious waltz of Instant Karma vocal reverb, warm electric guitar and an all-in "whoah ohh" chorus. It's these elements that gradually result in defining what the Magnetic Zeros are all about - rousing singalongs about nothing in particular with a sickly-sweet sentiment; Sharpe howling up the front of the mix (usually about love) and the rest of them making sure you remember the chorus, whether you were seeking to or not. It's an openly derivative yet sprightly sonic experience, with its stylings cut selectively from early seventies guitar pop, early Motown and even the modern freak folk movement at any given point. At times, it feels as if the entire album is a pastiche of yesteryear's guitar pop; struggling to create something that's as much their own as it is someone else's. When they get it right, however, it's a treat for all involved.
"Janglin'" (pop and rock will forever drop the g from words that finish with it) thrives on soulful melodies and a catchy array of nimble rhythms and squawking horns, as well as a kitschy "ba-ba-da-ba-da" that issues the challenge of not singing along (a heads up: you will fail said challenge). Meanwhile, the slow waltz balladry of "Black Water" shows the slightly more melodramatic side of the band's musical stylings, complete with tinkering piano and swelling strings that gives listeners an idea of what Arcade Fire sound like when they've been on the booze. There is one song found on Up From Below
, however, that is conveniently placed right at the record's centre, thus eclipsing everything that both precedes it and follows it - the sweet enchantment that is "Home". It's pretty obvious that Sharpe has a bit of a thing for bandmate Jade Castinos - she even gets her own song, the dull "Jade". On this little trip, however, the two get to sing about just how much they dig each other, and it's one of the depressingly rare instances where absolutely nothing goes wrong. The Johnny-and-June vocal interplay, the adorable whistling and the radiant energy of the song itself is more than enough to secure its position as Ebert's masterpiece.
Unfortunately, this proves to be more of a curse to the album overall than it does a blessing. Not only do none of the other songs come close to it, some tracks notably fall short of the mark. "Carries On" attempts to bottle the same energy of "Home", but it's much more irritating than it is catchy, with mumbled verses and a stupid chorus. "Desert Song", fittingly enough, wanders around aimlessly - every glimmer of an interesting shift in musical dynamics only a mirage. We could continue, but the fact remains that it's hard to get into specifics when everything sounds the same. The arrangements are predominantly weak, often making it sound like only half the band is being regularly used, if at all. It's as if everyone involved wrote a handful of great choruses and then forgot about the rest of the songs - the reverberating production throws a veneer over this, but doesn't help much further. Making matters worse, Sharpe's "life's a garden, dig it" mentality might serve his character well, but it certainly doesn't make for great lyrics: "Sometimes said it's sunshine/Let it sunshine on my mind", he says in-between what could only be puffs of seriously good weed on "Come in Please".
Up From Below
takes musical interactivity to a strange level in the fact that your own personal context will seal the fate of the album's quality. If you're up for dancing around in tie-dye clothing with a big stupid smile, then you're going to love this. If you can't bring yourself to such undying optimism, the record will irk you within the first few tracks. This isn't to say that Up From Below
is definitely a bad album, but it's not entirely good either. Simply approach with caution.