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Gabriel Kahane: The Ambassador *

Album Notes

Songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane's third album is also his debut for Sony Masterworks. A song cycle based on life in Los Angeles from WWII to the present day, ten of L.A.'s buildings serve as muses for the album's songs -- their addresses are parenthetically included in the titles. The Ambassador (named for the demolished hotel that housed early Academy Awards ceremonies and where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated) is more eclectic than 2011's Where Are the Arms and 2012's February House. Modern chamber music is woven through many tunes here, but folk, rock, pop, and jazz are also present. Co-produced with Casey Foubert, Matt Johnson, and Rob Moose, a strong set of ensemble players helm these sessions on strings, brass, and reeds. Shara Worden, Aoife O'Donovan, and Holcombe Waller contribute vocals selectively. "Bradbury (304 Broadway)" is a location where scenes in Blade Runner were shot; it is dedicated to Rutger Hauer and sung from his character's point of view. Commencing with elegant chamber pop, it soon weaves in minimal and contrapuntal piano themes adorned with swooping strings. At times, its multiple rhythms and harmonies resemble different songs playing simultaneously. "Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.)" is dedicated to Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old shot and killed by that store's owner just two weeks after the Rodney King beating. Over nine minutes, it's an arresting first-person narrative. Its spiraling arrangement is airy and binds modern classical music to avant pop and jazz. Worden lends gorgeous alternate and harmony vocals to its sweeping, sad, riveting presentation. "Musso and Frank (6667 Hollywood Blvd.)" (dedicated to Raymond Chandler) is narrated through 1940s Ellingtonian jazz framing middle-era Randy Newman-esque pop. The address is the bar where detective Philip Marlowe drank. "Griffith Park (2800 E. Observatory Ave.)" is an ironic, eerie, infectiously hooky pop song about a post-apocalyptic picnic. The title cut is a relatively straightforward acoustic folk tune that relates, through the doorman's point of view, everything the hotel witnessed. The sprawl of these songs reveals that besides life in L.A., perhaps The Ambassador has another inspiration: Simon & Garfunkel's 1968 album, Bookends. While none of Kahane's songs are as catchy as "Mrs. Robinson," the polished production, orchestral arrangement, and songwriting topics -- about identity and alienation inside the hallmark of modern history -- equate. Kahane's willingness to meld sophisticated 21st century chamber pop with historic traditions -- including Tin Pan Alley -- also recalls that record in particular and Simon in general. That said, Kahane's orchestrations and fragmented yet nearly hummable melodies -- and use of architectural monuments for storytelling devices throughout the album -- are his own. The Ambassador is occasionally unsuccessful for some of its awkward lyric turns of phrase and quizzical charts, but it's so audacious, those moments can be overlooked in lieu of its accomplishment as a whole. ~ Thom Jurek



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