Among those to emerge as part of New York's latest genre exepriment, the "indie-classical" scene, Gabriel Kahane is a 32 year-old L.A.-born Brooklyn-based musician, songwriter, and composer. Successfully maintaining a foothold in both concert halls and pop-folk clubs, Kahane is thus far best known for his work Craigslistlieder, which took ads from Craigslist and used them as lyrics with classical-style backing. The impressive results were as laugh-out-loud funny as they were moving, and featured some clearly accompished composition.
Gabriel Kahane's major label debut is thankfully as uncompromising as any of his previous efforts and credit must be given to Sony Masterworks in allowing an artist to fulfil his vision without pressuring him into throwing on some radio-friendly singles. Kahane himself recently praised the label in an interview, saying that his latest "is a weirder record than my last one, which was on a very small indie label... Sony stayed entirely out of the creative process..."
A poetic portrait of his native city, The Ambassador is made up of 10 tracks, each one named after and inspired by a different building in L.A. (the album was painstakingly researched with the help of Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne). Every track takes on its own period setting and different person's perspective. 'Empire Liquor Mart (9127 South Figueroa)' for example is written from the point of view of Latasha Harlins, a ninth-grader shot to death by a shopkeeper in 1991, the year before the L.A. riots, and 'Griffith Park (2800 E. Observatory Ave.)' tells of a post-apocalyptic picnic (a heavy topic that Kahane handles with Flaming Lips whimsy).
None of this feels gimmicky however, which is entirely down to Kahane's excellent creative judgement and craft. The only exception is perhaps 'Musso and Frank (6667 Hollywood Blvd.)', a noirish tribute to Raymond Chandler. Though undeniably a delightful track that oozes easy swing, it's also the track that least coheres with the rest of the record.
Kahane brought an impressive bunch of collaborators into the studio with him, including co-producers Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens), Matt Johnson (St. Vincent) and Rob Moose (Bon Iver). Indeed, at different points on the album, parallels can be drawn with all of those acts – 'Bradbury (304 Broadway)', for example feels very Sufjan Steven-esque with it's descent into dischord and rhythmic chaos, followed by a sudden ethereal chorus and bridge – but Kahane remains individual in his artistic and narrative choices, crafting an album of striking texture and tone.
'Slumlord Crocodile (115 E. 3rd St.)' betrays Kahane's biggest fault. Here he has thrown too many ideas together – enough indeed for two or more individual songs. What worked elsewhere doesn't work here; it is quite simply over-produced. Fortunately however, this is the only moment on the album that feels over-saturated by Kahane's creativity.
'Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.)' is a bass line-driven track that grounds the album nicely, while 'Veda (1 Pierce Dr.)' is aptly gothic and dream-like. 'Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Blvd.)' finds Kahane channeling Simon and Garfunkel, but it is 'Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.)' with its wonderful guest-vocal work from Shara Worden, that is the worthy centrepiece of this fantastic album. The Ambassador (though not always enitrely successfuly) will delight, challenge and move in equal measure.
Words: Ali Gardiner