Son, Ambulance - Key (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Son, Ambulance

Key (2004)

Saddle Creek

I have doubts about Saddle Creek sometimes. It seems that if any of their group of buds can pen a song, they will book them studio time, throw in a bunch of different instruments to beef it up, package it and sell it. Joe Knapp, former collaborator in Bright Eyes (drums on Fevers and Mirrors) had his singer-songwriter dreams realized in Son, Ambulance, first on a split with his former band followed by 2001's full length Euphemystic. I haven't heard those two releases, but I haven't read much good about them either. Key find Knapp and company trying to be a jack-of-all-trades by taking elements found in the biggies on Saddle Creek (Bright Eyes, Cursive, The Faint) and mixing them all up with a heaping helping of piano. There's a problem with trying to be a jack-of-all-trades: You try to do so many different things that none of the parts are that good at all. (To be fair, some parts are good, but that didn't have quite the same emphasis.)

This album needs to trim the fat. They could delete a few minutes off of songs here and there (the 7 minute "Sex in C Minor" and near 9 minute "Case of You/Wrinkle, Wrinkle) and cut out a few whole tracks ("C Minor Interlude", "If I Should Fall Asleep" especially) and we'd be left with have a nice 40-minute album of solid tracks. I have nothing against long songs or albums, but every minute should be necessary and interesting. Key wears on close to an hour and tries everything, from Bright Eyes folk-ish crooners, Cursive-lite rockers and even a couple Faint-lite drum machine driven synth songs. Notice I had to add "lite" because Son, Ambulance is not as good or as powerful as any of those bands.

However, there are some worthy tracks that would be left after fat-trimming, styles perhaps the band should stick to for more success in the future. The upbeat pop in "Taxi Cab Driver" makes for the best tune on the album, a hook-laden piano-driven song ala late 60's/early 70's Rolling Stones, complete with the blaring sax solo. The song ends with Oberst-style warbling, and it works well. Then immediately after is one of the few successful slow tunes, "Case of You/Wrinkle, Wrinkle," full of Beatles-esque pop with the first half chorus even sounding a bit like "Hey Jude." Sure, the Beatles could have gone the same musical distance in half the time (their song is 8:48), but it is still a good listen. Cub Country style alt-country appears in "Billy Budd," featuring a mellow melody and an appearance by Tim Kasher adding some fitting accordion backup. The song somehow almost breaks into a Doo Wop / Motown style vocal line at the end, which seems funny but sounds great.

The last track "Pleasure, Now" also succeeds due to the faster tempo and dancey beat, but falls a little short at the end with a sudden halt and a blues guitar lead over some sort of pseudo rapping in the background. Behind "Taxi Cab Driver" the strongest track would be the opener "Paper Snowflakes," with its cool reverb-ed piano opening, and a nice groove and melody throughout, but even here unfortunately there are some cringe-worthy flat notes to sour the song. Even the "hits" on here are made worse by certain twists and I think the problem would be that when they pass the five-minute mark, they manage to take a wrong turn somewhere. Trim the fat and they will probably succeed at writing more of the "euphoric pop" their bio raves about. Of Montreal = euphoric pop. Son, Ambulance = euphoric pop? No, maybe they should check on the definition of euphoric, because it doesn't mean mellow and depressing, which most of these tracks are. Write more "Taxi Cab Driver"s and then we'll talk.

Saddle Creek needs to bring a little editing in on all these incestuous projects for quality assurance. Fans of Bright Eyes may want to pick this up, every one else should check back on Son, Ambulance's next album.