Fifteen or so years ago, folk music and the alternative mainstream were two very separate entities, intersecting only via a few figures associated with the curious non-genre of ‘chill-out’.
Skip forward to the present day and folk is everywhere, scattered through the contemporary musical landscape in innumerable guises. It’s there in the glittering harp-powered visions of Joanna Newsom; the druggy electronics of Animal Collective; the distinctly more mainstream fare like Noah and the Whale and Mumford & Sons; the revival in popularity of oldsters like Richard Thompson. Almost smack-bang in the middle of them all is a fellow named Alexander, better known as Alex Ebert, confusingly-named frontman of US pop-rockers Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
Actually, though, it’s misleading to suggest Alexander’s self-titled record represents a medium of the sounds and attitudes of contemporary folk. It’s more that he attempts to dip his toes in a little bit of everything going on at the moment. Alexander (the record) kicks off with the acid-fried skiffle silliness of Let’s Win: pretty, melodic, slight and flippant, rattled off in a high register and slowly pickled by the addition of a series of daft electronic effects. It’s followed by Awake My Body, where all of a sudden he’s a creaky voiced old soak, growling out words of hippyish wisdom that are occasionally broken-up wordless whirligigs of Animal Collective-style chorus. Truth sees him dabble with a bit of Newton Faulkner-ish AOR; In the Twilight is the spit of Paul Simon’s Graceland; on the ragged Bad Bad Love it’s time for the Dylan impression; and Old Friend is a game attempt at tackling the battered, sundown intimacy of acoustic Springsteen.
For the most part Ebert wears these various guises well. Certainly care and feeling are in evidence, and the there are gleaming hooks at every turn. But there is an old cliché about being jack-of-all-trades and master of none, and ultimately Alexander is too diffused to have much identity as a body of work beyond ‘folky’. Ultimately this sounds like a side project, which can only be so disappointing when that’s precisely what it is.
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