Reviews

Euphemystic

Author: Rob Mitchum
02/02/2002 | Pitchfork Media | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
Seems like every year alternative radio brings forth yet another growling Ten-era Eddie Vedder knock-off or a sensitive lad throwing his voice up and down the register like Dave Matthews. What you end up with is the musical equivalent of the generic-brand cereals strewn across the bottom shelves of the nation's grocery chains. You know, those ones with the slightly altered names like "Captain Crunchy" and "Honey Hives." It's a phenomenon that's always intrigued me: are these singers just reflecting their primary influences, or is it a shameless attempt to penetrate a jaded radio listener's brain by momentarily convincing them they're listening to a new song by their favorite band?
I wouldn't accuse Son, Ambulance of such crass commercial manipulation. After all, they record for Omaha's tiny Saddle Creek label. What are they gonna do? Tour with No Doubt? (Uhh...) But I can't help getting hung up on the fact that Euphemystic really, really sounds like it was recorded by a lisping Ben Folds with a slight head cold. I'm sure bringing up Joe Knapp's vocal resemblance to Mr. Folds is a well-trodden comparison, but goddamn, it's hard not to make. If Folds' voice were a portrait, then Son, Ambulance would be one of those guys who sits in a museum every day for weeks painting a near-exact replica.

Perhaps I'm being unfair, and Knapp's resemblance to Folds is nothing more than a bizarre evolutionary convergence of the two singers' vocal cords. But Knapp doesn't do himself any favors by choosing the piano as his weapon of choice for the majority of these songs. And "Brown Park" from Son, Ambulance's debut EP, Oh, Holy Fools (a disc which also featured labelmates Bright Eyes) sounded so much like a Whatever and Ever Amen b-side you could probably convince Robert Sledge that he played bass on it.

Euphemystic, at least, never reaches that song's blatant Ben Folds Fivery. For one thing, Knapp's songwriting style is considerably less traditional, incorporating abrupt tempo shifts, complex rhythms, and sparse arrangements rather than bright harmonies and orchestral bombast. The album opener, "An Instant Death," is enough to make a drummer go on strike, accelerating and decelerating between spacy finger-picking, piano-driven strut, and guitar riff-rock worthy of an early Big Star album.

Despite these gymnastics, Knapp and Co. present significantly brighter skies than the gloom-and-doom melodrama of labelmates Bright Eyes and the Faint, with unabashed romanticism like "I Promise You'll Never Grow Old," a track which segues into and out of the theme from "Sesame Street" without breaking stride-- and it doesn't sound half as cheesy as you'd expect. Meanwhile, attempts at gravitas, like the Taco Bell Latin inflections of "Maria in Motion," are embarrassing missteps. Knapp is at his best when he sticks to the piano, as on the striking solo track "A New Dress for Maybell," rather than throwing overly precious synth swirls onto tracks like "A Book Laid on Its Binding."

Ironically, the more Son, Ambulance emphasizes the piano, the more it sounds like (to further beat a dead horse) Ben Folds outtakes. Luckily, I have a soft spot for the "Brick"-layer, so it doesn't bother me like a vocal resemblance to, say, Don Henley would. But sadly, Euphemystic is not quite a strong enough album to let me forget the similarity, nor does it present any other characteristic noteworthy enough to structure a record review around. Should Joe Knapp ever find his voice-- literally-- his band may be yet another band to watch out of the city Time Magazine is calling the "Rock Scene to Watch."

6.2/10
Euphemystic

Euphemystic

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