[26 June 2003]
The best thing about the Super Cuts compilation that came out not too long ago on Star Time International was the song “Country Gentleman” by what I thought at the time was a little band out of Brooklyn called Ambulance Ltd., or Ambulance as they prefer to be known. The song was like a thrift store hip pop band’s take on Spandau Ballet (by thrift store, I don’t mean the Good Will but instead the kind of thrift store that buys from the aforementioned and resells the stuff at ten times the price). The song stood out while few of the other ones on the comp did and that was good enough for me.
Everyone I knew who had the disc singled that song out from the bunch. In the moment, we all felt like we’d found something relatively special and fun. Come to find out that these guys are big, as in well connected, as in signed to TVT Records. Hey, I figured, that’s cool too. Who am I to begrudge them their success in the Great New York Band Signing Lottery? Now, just a few weeks after Super Cuts comes their debut EP and I put it on aglow with the hope that these guys may be onto something. The song’s grooves are largely in place; that’s evident early on and really, that’s 90% of the battle. Marcus Congleton’s vocals hang out on top, trying to act cool, with oohs and coohs sprinkled liberally throughout. The album sounds interesting, another big point in its favor, and they layer their instruments in a bit of a wash without having the whole thing turn to mush.
The songs are catchy while they’re playing, though none of them really stick with you once they’re finished (opener “Stay Where You Are” being the possible exception). “Heavy Lifting” shows off a healthy knowledge of later-era Beatles moves and throughout the EP’s five songs the band plays like they have considerably more experience than I can only guess that they do. They create space for each other with their playing and they get a lot of pop mileage out of their mostly straight-ahead approach. Judging from how well they interact musically on the material here, I’m willing to bet that these guys can pull the whole thing off really well live.
Still, they overplay their hand a bit, erring too far in their taste for shoegazing, or at least coolly constructed ‘80s synth pop. They seem unwilling to deliver the goods with a chorus that could have sealed the deal with any one of these songs. It gets to feeling a bit overly stylish and ultimately ends up being a little un-engaging. No matter how tough these guys try to sound, if you boiled them down you’d get a boy band residue. That’s not necessarily a criticism, though I imagine that people who are fans of the band will take it as one. Congleton sounds too pleading with his vocals to be really capable of breaking a heart, and when he puts on his Lou Reed face (“Primitive”) that’s exactly what it ends up sounding like. He doesn’t strut as much as preen, again not a criticism, and his most successful moments are the ones where he’s not trying so hard to cover that up.
Ambulance pulls their influences together pretty well even though they can’t always strike exactly the right balance between them. Really none of these songs are all that radically different in approach from “Country Gentleman” though I think that one was a bit more unapologetic in bringing the hook. If this EP had managed a song that popped out as much, it would have ended up being more memorable. I still wouldn’t be at all surprised, granted that luck stays on their side and they stay out on the road like it seems they are, if these guys are the next New York band to make a push out of the mid-sized clubs and into the mainstream.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ambulanceltd-st/