This decade's psychedelic pop has a new attitude: Think big. You can see it in the growth of grand-sounding assemblages with large, free-floating memberships: Polyphonic Spree, Lansing-Dreiden, Henri Fabergé and the Adorables. But no group has imbued its naturally large sound with a personal intimacy like Alex Ebert's shambolic Los Angeles 10-piece, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
Edward Sharpe is Ebert's messianic persona. He once noted that Sharpe was sent "to kinda heal and save mankind ... but he kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love." That kind of confession shades the Zeros' 2009 debut, Up From Below, making it more complex than the get-happy sing-along it first appears to be.
In a previous incarnation, Ebert cut a neurotic and lanky figure as the hard-partying Bowie-cum-Jagger singer for the dance-punk outfit Ima Robot. He created the Sharpe character during a transitional point in his life four years ago when he conquered his alcoholism, set aside the ascending Robot and dealt with a breakup. "It was a time for me to start embracing life again and making music for its own sake and enjoyment and spirit, instead of with an A&R mind," he says.
It was during this time when he recorded the demos for Up From Below, a diverse, spacious-sounding album that ventures far beyond the band's image in the press as a carefree group of hippies. Beyond the country-tinged sunshine of "Home" and "Janglin'," Up also swirls with folk, gospel and spaghetti-western flavors, boosted by Stewart Cole's heraldic trumpet. Ebert and the crew can pull off soaring school-choir hymns like "Carries On," but they also can execute mantric ditties such as "Om Nashi Me," opaque hallucinations such as "Desert Song," and even the flamenco-styled "Kisses Over Babylon."
That versatility matches Ebert's vocal style, which is now free of the jaded attitude that's audible in his Ima Robot work. Evoking both the laconic cosmic soul of Marc Bolan and the earnest spirituality of George Harrison, Ebert has no problem opening himself up lyrically, as he does on Up From Below's title track: To all the love I lost/Hey, just tryin' to play the boss/To all those friends I hurt/I treated 'em like dirt.
Besides Sharpe, the Zeros' center of gravity also lies in his romantic relationship with fellow singer Jade Castrinos. Although she's in the background on most of Up From Below, she has a couple of significant spotlight moments. Her front-porch bantering with Ebert on "Home" recalls June Carter's legendary chitchat with Johnny Cash. More intriguing is her nonvocal duty as the muse for "Jade," Ebert's almost unnervingly emotive love song. (In it, he deems her the girl of the hour.)
Surprisingly, that closeness shines through in the Zeros' sprawling live shows. Among the army of singing guitarists, bassists and percussionists, Castrinos dances ecstatically in her small space, and a shirtless Ebert conducts his scruffy dectet. An openhearted, revivalist hippie revue, the group is hard to resist for the cavorting crowd closest to the stage.
When asked why he needs such a big, powerful band to deliver such personal material, Ebert answers almost metaphysically: "It's because the songs ask for them, really. They beckon the instruments — they have an all-inclusive mind." The Zeros' true appeal lies in those songs having enough room to absorb the strikingly honest musings of a truly charismatic frontman.