Someone Else's Deja Vu
Author: Ian Cohen
07/03/2008 | Pitchforkmedia.com | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
I guess it's sort of a buzzkill to start off this way, but Someone Else's Déjà Vu is more interesting as a state-of-music-criticism case study than a collection of songs: If we're really doing our jobs here, this sentence will feature the last time you see "Ben Folds" in a Son, Ambulance review. On previous outings, Mr. Battle of Who Could Care Less (can't believe Brian Howe used "Brick"-layer before I had a chance to) and Son, Ambulance's Joe Knapp were namedropped in an approximate 1:1.5 ratio, but not only has Knapp given us nearly four years to dig up different piano man comparisons, he's pretty much ditched the ivories altogether. But even if one of Saddle Creek's most quietly ambitious artists is flying without a net, it's hard to call it thrilling, since Knapp forsook that adjective when he punned on his band name. Which just gives us another easy way out while dealing with Son, Ambulance's third LP, which is intermittently fluid and challenging in its arrangements and occasionally gorgeous-- but a lot of times, it just feels like you can't possibly finish it in a wakeful state.
For the first couple of listens, Knapp's willingness to play dress up carries the day. "A Girl in New York City" is a bit tough to trace lyrically, but it does an admirable job capturing the essence of its saucer-eyed title character, reflecting all sorts of wonder and culture-vulture consumption in its constantly morphing, light-loafered samba arrangement; the brief forays into buzzy guitar soloing even brings to mind Hissing of Summer Lawns-era Joni Mitchell, before the fever-dreamy "Legend of Lizeth" takes a soak in Canterbury Calgon. But Son, Ambulance is too laidback to be out of a comfort zone for long, and the wafting major chords of "Quand Tu Marches Seul" finds "technically proficient Piano Magic" and "heavily narcotized Dears" as the borders.
What ties all of it together is Knapp's modest everydude voice, which rarely is intrusive but even more rarely sounds like it's operating from a position of strength. "Wild Roses" goes for a real-talk romance in the manner of "Something" (down to the George Harrison-worshipping guitar solo), but it's more suited for "Nashville Star" where an appropriately outsized voice can realistically compete with the beyond-shlocky lyrics ("You can take her out dancing/ Spend all night drinking beer") and gooey instrumentation-- Knapp tries to kick things up with an ill-fitting backwards echo effect that sounds like his larynx getting shredded. But he also lacks the grit that could sell the rootsier material- the hangover balladry of "Yesterday Morning" simply stews when it's trying to simmer, and it's not so much an anchor as an albatross-- there are points where you wonder if it's ever going to end.
Occasionally, Someone Else's Déjà Vu is focused enough to be effective-- the off-time strums of "Horizons" manages to kickstart an otherwise terribly drowsy midsection, while "Juliet's Son" provides the most luminous passage through gauzy, low-key harmonies despite the words not really hitting like they should. But such concision is a rare find on a record that Knapp likely considers to be his Lifted, an Americana feeding frenzy that considers its sprawl as much of an end as the means. But more than any pedal steel touch or straight-shooter lyric, what made that record is something sorely lacking here, namely being young and full of shit enough to see limitations as hurdles instead of ceilings. The proof's in the title: Someone Else's Déjà Vu would've benefitted from Knapp making a stronger claim of ownership to his lofty visions.