Review: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Here

So the band that gave us Home, the single that got hipsters jigging with its potent mix of yee-haw country and nostalgia, return with the difficult second album. And yep, it’s difficult alright.

With its retro country and nauseating hippy kumbuya’ing, Here is a far from inspiring listen. In fact, the record sounds like it was made by a cult. Over the course of the nine tracks, you get the distinct impression that the musicians were imbued with faith – in their craft, in each other, in the material, and perhaps in God, or at least the evocative nature of religious language. But the problem lies in the fact that the songs simply aren’t good enough to communicate any of the intensity or sense of devotion they were conceived in. Instead, each track is like an empty vehicle, a clapped out VW camper van gathering moss in a commune field somewhere, failing to start, going nowhere.

The songs fit into a number of models – there’s pop-country; gospel blues; MOR Americana; and eerie camp-fire sing-a-longs. Sometimes, a combination of all of these. Consequently, Here sounds like it could just as well have been recorded by some crusties huddled in a yurt in 1970’s Norwich as a troupe of hairy Californian hippies in 2012.

A case in point is Dear Believer. With a nod to Devendra Barnhart, this airy acoustic strummer shows potential but is woefully lacking in originality, anything in fact to spark interest in the listener. Without genuine quirkiness, The Zeros actually have more in common with Barnhart’s one-time collaborators, Vetiver at their most anaemic. Tracks such as Child and All Wash Out drift pleasantly but aimlessly along in a similar Americana mode, innocuous till the end. The songs that do get going, don’t fare much better either. Fiya Wata reaches a crescendo not dissimilar to Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends, with Jade Castrinos letting her ‘Scout Niblett meets Janis Joplin’ vocal loose, but the unimaginative lyrics and generic blues tether it to the ordinary.

It’s not all bad by any means, it’s just that the good bits fail to make a dent in the general sense of underwhelmingness. On occasion, the band generate a pleasant old-time feel: a combination of  late-night Nashville porch jam and San Franciscan love-in. Banjos, bongos, accordions, upright bass, rough harmonies and chuckles, at least sound like an ‘atmosphere’, although laid a little thick in places. The interesting guitar lines on Mayla are pleasantly understated, but don’t do enough to elevate the evangelical mantra and loved-up groove swelling unnecessarily around it.

The duelling vocals of frontman Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos that were key to the appeal of 2009’s Up From Below and Home‘s success don’t quite spark to the same extent on Here. The gospel-skiffle of I Don’t Wanna Pray comes closest with its playful vocal interplay and toe-tapping stomp. Altogether more direct and in turn an album high point is the uptempo country-soul of That’s What’s Up, a good-time ditty in the same vein as The Beatles’ Don’t Pass Me By.

Ultimately, whereas Up From Below was a rickety rollercoaster of sixties nostalgia, Here is the retro tea-cups – boring until you feel sick and then back to boring again. Alex Ebert is apparently, “intensely excited to share it [Here]with anyone who wants to feel it.”  I’m not sure you can actually feel music, especially not bland hippy faff like this. If you’re a beardy Californian beatnik like Ebert who knows just what you can feel, just don’t count on feeling it too.

Words: Tom Spooner