Artist: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
In the panorama of genres, “folk music” is one of the more interesting ones, namely because there is no clear definition for it. There are similarities of parts, but the true key to folk music’s mysterious heart lies within the words that compose the term: folk music is the music of the people, the ever-elusive common man, arising wherever the people gather. Like fairytales, folk songs have a familiar sense of storytelling; once the words are spoken there’s a sense of continuity, of familiarity with what has always been sung. Also like fairytales, folk songs are firmly entrenched within the concept of oral tradition. This is the music of firepits and families, and tells the story of the everyman trudging through this similar, yet often surprising world.
With this in mind, the concept of new folk music almost seems to be an anomaly. Yet Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros weave a new tapestry of folk songs with the ingenuous pluck of children on their album Here. In fact there is a sense of play and experimentation throughout, a lightheartedness that can be found in the range of instruments they use – from a didgeridoo in “Man on Fire” to the clanking shepherd’s bells of “Mayla” – and how they play those instruments – for example stroking instead of plucking guitar strings in “Child.” Two of the songs on the album even flirt with reggae and island influences; “One Love to Another” and “Mayla” both possess a meandering, relaxed mood contained by a characteristically regular rhythm and percussion.
Some of the most successful songs deal with religious themes. “I Don’t Wanna Pray” is a kind of agnostic anthem, celebrating a spiritual connection via life itself. The song is rich with folk music cues, including snaps, claps, and a banjo that adds a tuneful riverboat vibrancy. The melody at times becomes much like a spiritual itself, further turning the theme of the song into a tangible characteristic. “Dear Believer” discusses the personal pursuit of enlightenment with a warm, full sound and vocals reminiscent of 60s folk. Yet despite the washboard and the rich choral swell, this is a song which comes across as surprisingly dark upon a closer listen. There is a sense of the desperado, the lone gunman seeking his quarry, as Sharpe sings “paradise has its hunter.” This unusual juxtaposition enriches the song in just the right amount, making a mellow tune suddenly ominous, and worth repeated investigation.
The songs range in the types of folk sound they pursue, from the slow 70s folk of “Fiya Wata” where every phrase sung punctuates an emotional progression that the music echoes, to the 60s big band folk of “That’s What’s Up” which gives a sincere and inescapably optimistic sing-along rollicker, replete with tambourines, whistles and shouts. Not every story will instantly appeal to every listener, but the common man will find some common ground in at least some of the tales told Here.