Review of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros' album Up From Below released through Rough Trade.
Once upon a time, there was a singer who formed a band that for all intents and purposes looked set to join fellow eighties enthusiasts The Killers and The Bravery on the music television and radio playlists across both sides of the Atlantic. Mega stardom and the riches that go with it beckoned, seemingly nothing could get in the way now. Well almost, a lack of quality material for one, not to mention an overbearing sense of nostalgic familiarity that saw all of their contemporaries bar Brandon Flowers and co. gradually fall by the wayside. The band in question, Ima Robot, and its main mouthpiece Alex Ebert eventually went their separate ways. Surely that would be the last anyone would ever hear of him, right? Wrong.
Although disillusioned with the music industry, Ebert did what all aspiring artists do having experienced failure at first hand. He dusted himself down, embraced a new circle of friends and culture, and ultimately re-invented himself, literally. Edward Sharpe you see isn't a pseudonym for the revitalised Ebert or the name of a bad member. Instead it's the collective bond by which this ten-strong group of Los Angeles-based musicians and artists apply themselves to. Indeed the story behind the band's name relates to characters from a book Ebert had began writing in-between putting together the songs that would form 'Up From Below', the first long player under this mysterious moniker.
What's more, Ebert and his creative bunch of troubadours have conjured up one of 2009's most eclectic albums that musically draws its influences from four decades worth of aural evolution and beyond. Although the most obvious comparisons will undoubtedly be made with the likes of The Decemberists and The Arcade Fire - 'Black Water' and its orchestral veneer certainly evokes visions of the former's exquisite 'Summersong' off 2006's masterpiece 'The Crane Wife' while the closing 'Om Nashi Me' could be a long lost relative to the latter's 'Wake Up' - it would be unfair to describe Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros as oddball copyists or such like. For a group with so many creative outlets in its armoury, it would be ridiculous to expect them to follow one direct course of action throughout the entirety of one record, and thankfully 'Up From Below' is anything but.
The jaunty 'Come In Please' and its optimistic plea to "wave goodbye to sorrow" is the subtle yin to the acoustic lament that is 'Brother''s yang, while 'Desert Song' and pensive, upbeat drive is what The Polyphonic Spree could have been had they shed their faux-hippyisms for tunes instead. Elsewhere, the sumptuous duet between Ebert and partner Jade Castrinos that is 'Home' would be easily mistaken for a Mamas And The Papas outtake were it not for the concise, almost complicated arrangements accompanying its mellow breeze eliciting its 21st Century status in the process.
Sure, 'Up From Below' isn't perfect; at thirteen songs it may be just a little too ambitious to stretch even the wildest of imaginations and would most probably have benefited from being more concise not to mention tighter quality control. However, when it comes to changing direction, Alex Ebert hasn't just performed a near-impossible 360-degree manoeuvre but also turned himself inside out whilst shaking his colleagues upside down in the bargain. So much so in fact, that his past really is a distant memory. Here's to the future, which one suspects will be exceedingly bright in the fantasy world of Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros.