Ambulance LTD: self-titled

[20 April 2004]

By John Davidson

Bright and Melancholy

There may not be a more carefully crafted debut release this year than the eponymous offering from Ambulance LTD. Full of sweet melodies, neat hooks, and pretty peach-fuzz harmonies, at times the album is almost too tidy for its own good. While much of New York continues to chase the visceral power pop of New Wave past, Brooklyn-based Ambulance LTD has elected to follow the path less traveled, and in doing so found something more cerebral, more plangent, much more uniquely their own.

As an album, Ambulance LTD is lyrically acute as well as gravely infectious, which makes it all the more unusual perhaps that it chooses to open with an instrumental. “Yoga Means Union” is obviously a piece that lies close to the bands heart, as they also chose to close with it at their recent end-of-tour New York show. The track starts out with a melancholic guitar line before doubling back on itself towards a bittersweet melodic jaunt, and in doing so recalls the tempo switchback found on the Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection”.

Of course, the entire business of influences and comparisons has become a little murky. Does it matter a jot that, to my mind, Ambulance recall any number of the more sophisticated, literate, specifically British bands of the last two decades? Not really. The Roses, the Smiths, James, Prefab Sprout … even Travis, in all their needy glory. What difference does it make? Almost none, or only inasmuch as a tenuous link might be made that each of the bands listed above emerged from a dour, gritty, industrial enclave (Manchester X 3, Newcastle, Glasgow … Ambulance, as stated, came together in Brooklyn) and that they developed vaguely similar bright, wordy, and witty means of expression.

But then, one hardly expects a confluence of angst-ridden rural poets anyway.

Ambulance is incredibly assured throughout, and any number of songs here would make fine singles—do people still buy singles? I guess so, now they’re so easily downloaded—notably “Primitive (The Way I Treat You)” and “Ophelia” (did I say “literate”?). There are glints of wry humor and mischief aplenty—as a description of self-pleasure, “You cut the circulation to your hand / And calculate the motion of the land” (from “Anecdote”) takes a particularly clever, allusive turn—so that it’s really hard to find much fault with the whole endeavor. Except…

In polishing this record to a shiny jewel, the raw edge of character has occasionally been shaved away. Like the vehicle of safe harbor from whence they take their name, Ambulance seek here to keep us entirely safe from harm, and it’s occasionally at the expense of thrills or danger. The variety of harmonies may often be spectacular, but eight or nine songs with the emphases squarely on them is too much; by the end, the result tends towards the singular and saccharine. Where’s the spice?

Certainly Ambulance LTD possesses the muscle to rock. Several of these songs suggest the means to do so, but you probably wouldn’t know it without having seen them live (if you want to draw another comparison, the Smiths’ first album suffered from similar under-nourishment). Here, we have to wait until track 10, “Swim”, for any threat of menace, and it doesn’t fully deliver. Likewise with “Young Urban”, which practically burns onstage—it smolders on this recording too, but all the time you’re willing it on, “Louder! Louder!”

Such qualms might be the difference between a good first record and a great one, but no matter. The quality is there, the craft. Ambulance LTD has the look of a real band, not just a bunch of lads chasing a fad and a style in the moment. If the disparate pieces hold together (the band’s members originate from California, the Midwest, Ireland), “Ambulance chaser” may no longer be the province of the pejorative.

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