- SPIN Rating:4 of 10
Ten years ago, Ima Robot — an L.A. quartet featuring future Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert, backed by Beck's rhythm section — helped pioneer the early-'80s post-punk/new wave/art-dance revival. I liked parts of their debut album, and thus felt optimistic about seeing them live, but the show I caught didn't exactly radiate the spikey coolness of Franz Ferdinand. Instead, in his Flashdance Capezios, Ebert spastically flailed across the stage in a clownish imitation of the savage choreography Gang of Four had executed with awe-striking fury. He was parodying the culture that raised me, and it made me wince.
Fast-forward to 2011, and I'm interviewing the same guy, now reborn as a messianic folk-rock hippie on the opening night of the Railroad Revival Tour that Sharpe, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Mumford & Sons were taking from Oakland to New Orleans via old-fashioned trains and tracks. This time, it's Ebert who's wincing: He's visibly uncomfortable with my suggestion that his latest incarnation might also be performance art, a rendering of sincerity that's just as constructed as Ima Robot's earnest about being ironic. When he takes the stage an hour later with a ramshackle band leading one campfire sing-along after another, the fans — children of genuine Haight-Ashbury hippies and the punks who hated them — go through the motions of their parents' rituals as the setting sun bleeds orange onto the nearby bay. It feels like a quaint, deliberate reenactment of something originally primal and unplanned.
Recorded in tandem with last year's Here, the band's third, self-titled album features their absolutely worst example of this routine, a multi-part epic actually called "Let's Get High." But it's not playing to their dosed constituents, oh no: It's really about getting high on love, of course, while addressing prejudice, terrorism, the Occupy movement, and "kung fu in the mud." Before skirting the copyright on Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" in the final vamp by substituting the original melody with god-awful whining, it attempts what should be a climax with a typically contrived plea to love everybody, even "bigots and assholes."
This is the crux of Edward Sharpe's shtick, and it suits a festival environment that's inherently communal. It may be corny or contrived, but at least it's a positive cliché, one based on harmony, both literal and figurative. On record, though — and particularly this one, which presents churchy performances in mixes both realistic and surreal —these same Up With People tropes don't work as well, particularly with prolonged exposure, as inferior follow-ups to promising debuts by the Polyphonic Spree and I'm From Barcelona have proven. Indie-gospel fusion may be growing with each recession-fueled, faith-challenging year, but its success rate sure is low.
Why is that? In Sharpe's particular case, the songs and performances usually underwhelm because somebody thinks they've got to be roots-y and artsy at the same time. Take, for example, "Life Is Hard," an R&B waltz that diverts from its otherwise rote descending melody with a blatantly dissonant patch that confirms the title but trips up Ebert and singing partner Jade Castrinos, leaving the results sounding under-rehearsed. There's also the pseudo-profundity of lyrics like, "Life is it, life is it / It's where it's at / It's getting skinny, getting fat." Maybe Mavis Staples could get away with hokey shit like that, but neither Ebert nor Castrinos have the authority. Ebert's R&B falsetto is downright shrill on "Please!" an otherwise serviceable rewrite of John Lennon's early soul-searching solo stuff. Yet once again, Ebert isn't Lennon, and his Magnetic buds aren't the Flaming Lips or My Morning Jacket, the oft-copied models for this happy sadness.
At their best, the Zeroes find more fruitful things to plagiarize. Castrinos' solo cameo "Remember to Remember" nails a particularly openhearted and effusive George Harrison / Phil Spector All Things Must Pass vibe, and she belts far better than anything else would lead you to believe. The next and final cut, "This Life," wanders into "A Change Is Gonna Come" territory, which is, of course, audacious and foolhard. But the songwriting, which captures an epiphany that life must be lived for the betterment of others and not just one's self… well, it's startlingly beautiful, a grand slam where most everything else goes foul. Ebert is ultimately too undisciplined to pull off a whole album as powerful as these last two songs: His contrived boho-hobo shaman act could never sustain such genuine beauty.