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splendid > reviews > 11/13/2004
Son, Ambulance
Son, Ambulance
Key
Saddle Creek


Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Paper Snowflakes"

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For an album that begins so obtusely -- with an unexplained father's day phone call from a young boy, slowly drowned out by a wave of white noise -- Key finishes inclusively, triumphantly. What's more, for Key, and especially for singer/songwriter Joe Knapp, escaping the whiny singer/songwriter tag while sharing a label with Bright Eyes is not only a major success, but outright amazing. There are two reasons for the album's accomplishment: (1) Knapp writes damn good songs, gets talented people to play them and doesn't put himself any higher in the creative chain, and (2) Knapp often sounds more like early Elvis Costello than Conor Oberst.

"Paper Snowflakes" opens the album proper with an echoing piano riff that approximates Tori Amos covering Hendrix's "If 6 were 9". It has a dirty, funky feel to it, which is almost immediately echoed in guitarist Dylan Strimple's auto-wah solo. Unfortunately, Knapp's vocal contribution appears lazy in this company; he rarely moves out of his range, and when does he, he doesn't allow emotion to edge into his performance.

"Billy Budd" follows, and while Knapp does not alter his vocal style, it fits perfectly here. The song is a pure '50's shuffle -- the sort of almost-waltz common to Calexico. The lyrics are more noticeable throughout, with tossed-off observations such as "In that hot water, I will make tea for you / You say you're sick, but I think you're just bored." The segue into "Chlorophyll" is almost unnoticeable; the music never quite stops, and the sonic palette doesn't change. Guitarist Strimple again makes himself noticed with an excellent solo in the style of Neil Young and Robert Quine, and again, the drumbeat barely stops. There's a little flutter to indicate a change in tempo, and then the band pulls full-bore into "Sex in C Minor", one of Key's two epics (the other is the nine minute "Case of You/Wrinkle, Wrinkle"). "Sex" is our first opportunity to hear bassist Erica Pederson's vocals, and it's notable for the sexy, facile way her vocals intertwine with Knapp's.

Key ultimately demands direct attention; while some songs seem to call out for the openness of a long car ride, this is a headphone masterpiece. It never condescends, and does not explain, expecting you to pick up the slack, take it apart, put it together and love what you've created.



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