erasing clouds

Son Ambulance, Key

review by dave heaton

"It feels like I'm in a fog," Joe Knapp sings near the beginning of his band Son, Ambulance's second full-length album Key. The first half of the album embodies that feeling, the sense that you're lost in a cloud constructed out of anxiety and longing. The album opens with the voice of Knapp's son on an answering machine message; his voice soon disappears within jarring noise. The feeling of disconnection which that opening evokes is at the heart of Key. It's a trip within the mind of someone who is nervous, lonely, and lost, who longs for human connection. Musically the album shares the lyrical slant towards darkness while also being even more diverse and accomplished than Son, Ambulance's debut album, the underrated 2001 albumEuphemystic.

"Paper snowflakes don't melt in the sunshine/glass tears don't dry," Knapp sings on the first proper song, poetically getting at feelings of incongruity and wishes for perfection. Clouded minds and hurt feelings propel the first half of Key, as do intricate and delicate piano parts wrapping themselves through Knapp's pop-rock melodies. Then a savior arrives via a trip-hop interlude where a female vocalist guides our damaged narrator with her voice, singing, "are you hanging from a thread?/then it's time to cut the string."

From there the album enters a calmer but no less rigorous stretch, where the songs are just as emotional but there's light shining in the corner. These songs are still filled with yearning - perhaps even more so - but they also feel hopeful, prettier. And they're more diverse, with blues jaunts befriending vocoders and synthesizers. The nearly 9-minute, gorgeously complicated, ocassionally late-Beatles-tilted "Case of You/Wrinkle, Wrinkle" feels like the album's emotional height, until you hear Key's last three songs, each of which is just as filled with passion and depth. It's almost a case of multiple-endings, which each of the last four or so songs feeling like a suitable ending point.

Son, Ambulance for some reason seem to get almost uniformly dismissive reviews, or perhaps I'm just reading the wrong publications. In either case, there's nothing mediocre or typical about Key. This is both an ambitious filling-out of the band's sound and a remarkable concept album about finding your way through the bleakness.


Issue 28, November 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds