There's a new attitude in psychedelic pop this decade — think big, as in lots of people sharing the stage. We've seen a growth of grand-sounding assemblages with large, free-floating memberships like Polyphonic Spree, Lansing-Dreiden, and Henri Fabergé and the Adorables. But none have imbued their naturally large sound with a personal intimacy like Alex Ebert's shambolic, Los Angeles–based 10-piece act 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 confessionalism shades the Zeros' compelling 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 dance-punkers 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 relationship 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 also a time in which he recorded the demos for Up, a diverse, spacious-sounding album that ventures far beyond the band's image in the press as a carefree group of hippies. Although it has yielded country-tinged sunshine-pop hits like "Home" and "Janglin'," Up also swirls in folk, gospel, and spaghetti-Western flavors, boosted by the heraldic trumpet playing of Stewart Cole. While Ebert and crew can pull off soaring school-choir hymns like "Carries On," they can also execute mantric ditties like "Om Nashi Me," opaque hallucinations like "Desert Song," and even the flamenco-styled "Kisses over Babylon."
That versatility fits well with Ebert's vocal style, which is now free of the jaded attitude he took on with Ima Robot. Evoking both the laconic cosmic soul of Marc Bolan and the earnest spiritual attitude 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 lies in his romantic relationship with fellow singer Jade Castrinos. Although she's in the background on most of Up, she has a couple of significant spotlight moments. Her front-porch–bantering duet 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 which 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, you'll find Castrinos dancing ecstatically in her small space and a shirtless Ebert conducting his scruffy dectet. As an open-hearted, revivalist hippie revue for the secular age, it's hardest 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.