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Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, ‘Here’ (Community/Vagrant)

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: May 29, 2012
Label: Community Music/Vagrant Records

If Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros didn’t exist, the deities who put on music festivals would have to invent them. The band has the loose feel of a jam act without the endless noodling. They radiate warm nostalgia on account of an ersatz Jesus frontman, Alex Ebert, backed by a beaming ten-member band who look zapped direct from Yasgur’s farm. They play pleasant, low-key anthems that are easy to sing along to. They’re good counter-programming for the dance tent. Surrounded by a smiling mass on a sunny day, it’s easy to listen to these sorta-hippies and think we must be in heaven, man.

Sharpe arrived like an acid flashback. Appearing in 2008, footwear-averse and draped in flowing cotton, the band exuded a benignly cultish flower-power vibe. The songs were memorable, though. Casually expansive and catchy as sin, “Home” and “Janglin” were deeply comforting folk-rock pastiche, replete with tambourines, massed harmonies, and charmingly kitschy Taco Bell trumpet flourishes. On those and other songs from 2009’s loopy debut, Up From Below, Ebert (whose unpublished novel about a messiah gave the band its name) and his belting co-vocalist Jade Castrinos, sang like they were smiling, urged on by the communal chorale that’s become de rigueur since Arcade Fire shouted at us to wake up. Their sound was genial, rousing, summery.

The lyrics, though, gave pause. In a thin, nervy voice, Ebert sang about Babylon and magical mysteries, the man from Galilee, and “Om Nashi Me.” This was the language of revelation, though what was being revealed was never clear. But as any number of aimlessly engaged grassroots leaders can attest, a muddled message doesn’t have to hold you back. Gather a group of diehards, convey a sense of greater purpose, and more will come. Up From Below was a hit, and now, touring behind the follow-up, Here, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros can fill amphitheaters.

The message is no clearer on the new album, but the music is — both calmer and better than its predecessor. On quietly intense opener “Man on Fire,” Ebert testifies about being set spiritually ablaze, declaring that he wants “the whole damn world to come dance with me,” as if he’s sharing stories on the back porch. His voice is surrounded by gentle fingerpicked acoustic guitar, a lone kick drum, and a soothing congregation of believers, some doubling him, others in wordless harmony, still more yipping in ecstasy. Elsewhere, the devotional “Mayla” shimmers, its silvery Europe ’72 guitars flitting about the moonlit melody. Castrinos, whose lusty voice is the band’s boldest color, goes Grace Slick big on “Fiya Wata” and pushes this ambling band toward rocking. The golden “I Don’t Wanna Pray” finds the Zeros desiring to be “Not the pray-er but the prayer.” That sentiment is echoed on the hymnlike “Dear Believer,” as Ebert asserts, “Reaching for heaven is what I’m on Earth to do.”

Um, okay, but how? More telling is when, on the same song, Ebert murmurs, “Call me wise / Call me fool.” Surrounded by so many musical readymades, all this second-hand metaphysics seems pulled from the group’s collective wazoo. The album would strike deeper if Ebert’s opaque activity suggested some kind of activism — a reason to join beyond the mere invitation. Instead, Here offers the succor of humbly skyward-gazing arrangements and graceful melody. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros are song-makers. The Son to whom they continually allude was a shit-disturber. That matters.