Alex Ebert

I vs I

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Given the success of his more-famous alias Edward Sharpe, and his Golden Globe-winning film scoring sideline, Alex Ebert's solo material -- including 2011's Alexander and his 2018 catch-all project In Support of 5ame Dude -- have tended to be received as afterthoughts. While Alexander was a stripped-down affair, certainly compared to the 11-piece Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, it was still a highly melodic endeavor rooted in '60s folk-rock and psych-pop inspirations. Nine years later, the ambitious follow-up, I vs I, is quite a different creature. It reflects a songwriter and sound designer who has absorbed several years of experimentation at a digital audio workstation as well as the influence of advances in artistry during the decade by leading figures of the rap and alt-R&B realms. A dense and sprawling work consisting of 14 tracks that Ebert has referred to as "almost a concept album," I vs I is colorful and expansive from the start. Warped opener "To the Days" quickly introduces melodic guitar, then a low-frequency bass and a Wall of Sound approximating faux brass and celebratory cathedral bells. It's topped off by vocals that are a third of the way to Alvin & the Chipmunks, all to eerie and kaleidoscopic effect. The track settles into a sparer melodic rap with wonky beats before the first minute is up. Not done yet, there's a cinematic keyboard break later that merges into an arty passage with Bowie-like vocals and shifting keys signatures. Somehow, it's all catchy, and whether individual listeners find it dazzling or overwhelming, it merely sets the stage for what's to come. The second track is a supremely weird, impressionistic cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," then, as Ebert follows a loose story arc involving a breakup and recovery, he passes through pop-rap ("Automatic Youth"), anthemic gospel-folk replete with handclaps and whistling ("Stronger"), symphonic rap ("Press Play" and "Fluid," a reference to gender fluidity), and more. While the album's headphone-encouraging design is elaborate -- even suffocating at times -- effortless rhythmic and melodic hooks straight from Ebert's (and Edward Sharpe's) wheelhouse lie in wait throughout.

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