Bands that work in collectives inevitably tend to promote a high level of overlap between projects. That’s how it was in the late ’90s with the now-defunct Elephant Six collective. The Apples In Stereo’s Robert Schneider seemed to have produced at least one recording by each band, while Jeff Mangum sang backup or played drums on every other album released by an E6 band. The best example of late of this kind of inter-band camaraderie is best seen in artists on the Saddle Creek label. They’re all based out of Omaha, which helps logistically, but they all seem to have a genuine interest in being a part of each other’s work. If you were to see a Saddle Creek release that doesn’t credit Tim Kasher, Conor Oberst or a Baechle, it would be the first.
Take the newest release on the label, for example. Son, Ambulance’s Key features a writing credit by Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and instrumentation provided by Cursive and The Good Life’s Tim Kasher. Does that mean that Son, Ambulance isn’t a perfectly capable band on their own? Certainly not. But it doesn’t hurt to be a part of a healthy, nurturing family of talented musicians.
Son, Ambulance is the vehicle for the songwriting of Joe Knapp, who applied the moniker to his solo work starting with Oh Holy Fools, a split with Bright Eyes. Yet Key, SA’s latest, is a full-band effort, displaying a wide range of emotions and ambitious songwriting. Son, Ambulance is, by far, the most piano-centric Saddle Creek band, which immediately sets them apart from the rocking Cursive, the alt-country leanings of Bright Eyes or the electro new wave of The Faint. Key seems to fall somewhere between modern Britpop and 1970s AM radio pop, marrying gentle, minor key melodies with a penchant for epic arrangements and just the slightest bit of drama.
Key has no shortage of high points. Leadoff track “Paper Snowflakes” is a perfect autumn single, morose and mopey, but no less catchy and likeable. “Billy Budd,” a track co-written by Conor Oberst, suggests Bright Eyes in its touches of Southwestern twang. Yet, some of the larger pieces display the most interesting moments, like the seven-minute rock opera of “Sex in C Minor,” which is followed by the much shorter, yet no less brilliant “C Minor Interlude,” featuring some female vocals. That ’70s influence resurfaces on the nigh southern rock of “Taxi Cab Driver” (with an E-Street Band worthy sax solo) and it totally rocks.
Son, Ambulance may not be as well-established as some of their Saddle Creek peers. And as a band, they’re still pretty green. But Key is evidence enough that with or without the minimal aid of a Bright Eye, they’re a talented group, helmed by a gifted songwriter who is equally adept at paying homage to his influences as he is at surpassing them.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.