Reviews

Key

Author: Brian Howe
10/26/2004 | Pitchfork Media | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
Joe Knapp has often been written off as an ersatz Ben Folds. Like Folds, the Son, Ambulance leader composes on piano and sings with an adenoidal Elvis Costello intonation, but it's nevertheless a suspiciously shallow appraisal. Knapp never broaches the kitschy, ironic-piano-man sensibility Folds seems to prefer. At root, Knapp's songs are entirely different: murky, sepia-toned daguerreotypes of earnest idealism and ephemeral melody.

Knapp's frequent Conor Oberst comparisons are easier to justify-- especially considering he debuted his syrupy drawl on Bright Eyes' Every Day and Every Night. Son, Ambulance first appeared on Oh Holy Fools, a split EP with Bright Eyes on which Knapp's ramshackle confections easily outshone Oberst's meandering emoting. Still, the comparison only holds up in regards to the broadest traits-- Knapp's songs are exponentially more delicate and sanguine than Oberst's. The parallel evolution of their songwriting styles, which culminates with Key, is more salient.

Son, Ambulance's debut LP, Euphemystic, and Oberst's work through Fevers and Mirrors shared an amateurish basement charm-- imperfections were left intact; the compositions seemed intuitive and untrained. Now, just as Oberst replaced the spare demeanor of Fevers and Mirrors with the sprawling, orchestral inflation of The Story is in the Soil, Knapp has recruited a new (seemingly more refined and experienced) band for Key. The new musicians forgo the gauzy, playful dilettantism of Euphemystic in favor of expansive pop marathons, akin to the stripe of pre-millennial mainstream rock more interested in complex composition and multi-instrumentalism than synthesizers and drum machines (except for "House Guest" and "Glitter Angel", two grainy, bubbling forays into synth-pop). It's not hard to imagine the reverberating piano and gritty, soloing guitar of the album's first proper song, "Paper Snowflakes", nestling snugly between left-field favorites like American Music Club and Talk Talk.

Usually, stylistic revision takes place visibly and incrementally, but Son, Ambulance's new brew fermented in the silence between their debut and this sophomore release, and it's jarring when the man who once covered the "Sesame Street" theme song suddenly tries his hand at "mature" songwriting. Key isn't just the name of Knapp's new record, it's also what his voice still freely drifts in and out of, and while his unsteady falsetto dovetailed naturally with his former band's looseness, it oddly sits on the impregnable foundations constructed by his new crack players, particularly on graver numbers like "Sex in C Minor".

But "oddly" doesn't mean "badly," and traces of the old Son, Ambulance linger, most notably on "Billy Budd". With its hushed synth drone, flecks of acoustic guitar, and Knapp's most winsome vocals, it evokes Oh Holy Fools's "The Invention of Beauty" in its calm, austere comeliness. And lyrically, Knapp still veers between sentimental imagery-- here, he pledges to follow the object of his desire and catch her tears in a bucket, and to use that warm water "to make tea for you"-- and pithy turns that cut through the music's pollyannaish romanticism: "You say that you're sick, but I think you're just bored." The same goes for the skittering drums, laddering piano, chiming guitars and amorphous edges of "Chlorophyll".

Overall, Key often sounds the way a child trying on his father's suit looks: serious, rumpled, and proudly beaming. It's an endearing quality, provided that you're not offended when Knapp's cracking voice occasionally wanders out of the precise hedge-maze of the music. Let's just hope that on the next album, he doesn't fire himself and hire Elton John to do the vocals, completing the transition and completely abandoning the tremulous heart of Son, Ambulance in the process.

7.5/10
Key

Key

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