News Column

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros make honest music

August 3, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 03--The members of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros think pop music might be headed into a new phase, one in which the calculated cynicism and ironic detachment prevalent in recent years starts giving way to good old-fashioned sincerity.

Honestly.

"The term 'post-ironic' has been thrown around, and I may or may not have helped to have a hand in inventing it," said the band's singer and chief songwriter, Alex Ebert, who did invent the alter ego of Edward Sharpe as the namesake for the band he and several friends started in Los Angeles six years ago after his stint in Ima Robot.

"The interesting thing is that if you come right out as [B.S.], no one questions you doing [B.S.]," Ebert, 35, said. "No one says Lady Gaga's not for real, because she's obviously not for real. No one's going to attack the veracity of Lady Gaga today, or anyone really....

"But if you try and approach something with a post-ironic or post-sarcastic sense, with a sense of earnestness, suddenly you have to be vetted and picked apart. Whereas if you presented yourself dishonestly, sarcastically or ironically, it's all good; no one's going to question who you are. It's a very interesting, highly ironic situation."

Irony and sarcasm are in short supply on the group's third album, "Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros," which came out July 23. Instead, Ebert and the nearly dozen other members of this hard-to-categorize collective pour themselves into unapologetic expressions of love, peace, the quest for transcendent experience and other remnants of the hippie era.

Those are topics the group has been flirting with since its 2009 debut album, "Up From Below," with its hit "Home," and, especially, the 2012 sophomore effort "Here." Those albums established the band as one of the leading lights of a new, uplifting strain of indie rock, which the Zeros inject with punchy horn parts, soaring vocal choruses and clashing percussion effects often adorned in a Phil Spector-esque wall of sound.

England's breakthrough roots band Mumford & Sons signed the Magnetic Zeros to the group's fledgling Community Music/Vagrant Records label and led to Mumford inviting Sharpe out as its opening act on recent dates in Europe, with more ahead on Mumford's U.S. tour later this year.

Singer Jade Castrinos, who got the ball rolling on the Magnetic Zeros when she and Ebert met in 2007 at Little Pedro's restaurant in downtown L.A., says there's enough music to make people feel lousy. "I don't really want to do that. I guess we're doing our thing. Like Mumford & Sons -- being at their concerts and getting to play with them, that's so amazing. It makes me cry when I watch them and see 65,000 people singing a song together."

On its own, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros will headline a homecoming show Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, something the band members also view with almost giddy anticipation.

Joyful sentiments abound on the new album, gaining power by working in tandem with expressions of genuine anguish and despair. It's with utter sincerity that Ebert wrote and sings songs such as "Life Is Hard," "Better Days" and "If I Were Free" this time around.

"The main thing I'm grappling with," the L.A. native said between sessions tinkering with mixes of several tracks at a Hollywood recording studio, "is sort of impulse versus reflection."

The latter quality comes across in the long pauses Ebert takes between statements, creating the impression of an exceptionally thoughtful man who constantly searches feelings in the moment on a given topic or question.

"What I mean by that is: Do I follow my present instinct to want to reach an ecstatic state -- despite the fact that that current drive may drive the song right off the cliff and distort it?

"Or do I pull back and think about it from a calmer, timeless perspective: What will I enjoy more when I have wearier ears and I'm relaxing at home and I'm hanging out with my grandkids?" said the man who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and had his passion for communal music-making ignited by an elementary school music teacher from South Africa.

"It's an interesting dilemma," he said.

As the new album was shaping up, "let's go for it" seemed to be winning out. Its predecessor, "Here," was a more measured mix of ethereally beautiful explorations into transcendence, and while "Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros" also strives for a higher experience, it's one that hews closer to the vitality of the band's electrifying live performances.

In a sense, it's the old tug between the spiritual and the temporal that artists have grappled with through the ages. Ebert engages in that tussle in the indie-rock arena with a musical attitude that also splits the difference between the boundaries of pop song structure that he greatly admires and the freedom of an expository jam-band mind-set.

It also surfaces in Ebert's invention of the Edward Sharpe alter ego, whom he has described as "a messianic figure sent down to Earth to kinda heal and save mankind but who kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love." Ebert himself reinforces the persona of a messianic figure with his wildly unkempt hair and beard, and a penchant for ditching his shoes and working barefoot in the studio.

He comes across more pixieishly playful than ominously intense, but in the recording of "They Were Wrong," Ebert opted for a deep, Johnny Cash/Leonard Cohen-like voice to express his yearning to clutch tightly to hope even in the face of sickness, pain or death.

He and his bandmates have mustered the audacity in the post-authentic age to sing, in the new album's song "Peace": "Joy, joy is the giving, give to everybody, joy, joy."

Such unmodulated emotion does leave Ebert and his bandmates open to criticism from those who still live in the post-authentic world.

"In particular there was a review of the first album that came out way after the album was released," Ebert said. "It didn't review the album really, it only reviewed me, saying, 'He was in Ima Robot and now he's doing this and it's [B.S.].'"

Magnetic Zeros guitarist Christian Letts wants nothing to do with that attitude.

"I've been in other bands where you don't smile because it's not cool," he said. "I think these [positive] emotions are really contagious. I see what happens at our shows -- people are smiling, they're having a good time; other people are crying, and it makes you feel like what you're doing really matters. It's beautifully contagious, it spreads fast through the room. I'd like to see it spread as big as it can. It's great to spread that message."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Twitter: @RandyLewis2

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Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles

When: 7 p.m. Sun.

Cost: $21.50 to $54.50

Information: http://www.ticketmaster.com or (323) 850-2000

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