It's a nice feeling when great music takes you completely by surprise. I remember well the first time I saw Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros perform live, at the Spot at Case Western Reserve University. I knew little about the band before the show. Here was this big group of hippie-looking people with all sorts of instruments playing big, uplifting, utterly irresistible songs that sounded like they came out of the '60s or '70s. I was enthralled with their performance, and bought their debut album Up From Below without hesitation. It ended up being my favorite album of 2009. The highlight of the album, "Home," a duet with the Magnetic Zeros' frontman Alex Ebert trading off vocals with Jade Castrinos, is one of the happiest love songs I've ever heard, and probably one of my favorite songs ever. The song helped propel the group to a decent amount of fame, and anyone who watches the NFL regularly probably heard it in the league's commercials.
In some sense, it felt to me like the band had caught lightning in a bottle with Up From Below, so although I was looking forward to the followup Here, I had my doubts that it would live up to its predecessor. Now, having given a lot of listens to Here, I'm happy to report that those doubts were unnecessary.
I'll admit that the first time I listened to Here, a part of me was waiting for some of the big, rousing numbers that made up much of Up From Below's runtime. Such a song never really came. And that's why I consider Here so surprising: after the breakthrough success of their first album, they came out with a followup that is so different in sound, but at the same time, so excellent. Indeed, the more I listen to Here (which is not an album that should be judged after one or two listens, especially if you're comparing it to its predecessor), the more I'm tempted to say it's just as good as Up From Below.
The album does retain the retro feel of its predecessor, but it's a much more mellow and more intimate affair. I'm sure some people will be looking for another "Home." I'd say "Home" was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and it was a wise choice not to try to copy their earlier success. At the same time, the second track on Here, "That's What's Up," is (in a sense) a sequel to "Home," not in overall sound but in content. It's another Alex/Jade duet, and whereas "Home" described the experience of falling in love, "That's What's Up" includes lyrics like, "Forever, hey hey love/We been best friends forever darlin, that's what's up!" It's another very happy song, and I can't help but smile when I listen to it. Castrinos' powerful vocals are a delight, and she takes lead vocals on "Fiya Wata," another highlight. Ebert is an excellent vocalist himself, reminiscent of John Lennon at times.
Many songs on Here, such as "I Don't Wanna Pray," sound like they could be a group of friends singing around a campfire. The album just emanates such great vibes. Other standout tracks include opener "Man on Fire" and "Mayla," the centerpiece of the album, which takes great advantage of the band's large size as different instruments provide layered textures in a wonderfully chill-sounding song. Here was self-produced, and I'm really impressed with the overall sound of the album. I'm no audiophile, so this may not be the best description, but I'm sure some people have heard of the Loudness War, and may have noticed that albums released more than, say, 15 or 20 years ago tend to be less loud than more recent albums. This is not a good quality of modern music, as the increased loudness means more compression, less dynamic range, and at times loss of sound quality. I noticed that when I play Here on my stereo I have to turn the volume up higher, like I would for an album from 30 or 40 years ago. I feel like this adds to the old-timey nature of the Magnetic Zeros' sound. The music has more room to breathe, and just has a nice, warm feeling to it.
The world, I think, could use more unabashedly happy folk music. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have now released a second outstanding album of such music, and the gospel-folk of Here makes a wonderful companion piece to the folk-rock of Up From Below. I very much hope that I will get to see these songs performed live!