The curiously titled Son, Ambulance made their debut on Oh, Holy Fools, a split with the then exploding phenomenon known as Bright Eyes. Their first proper full length, 2001's Euphemystic, dropped with little fanfare. I read some reviews of Son, Ambulance's debut effort that compared songwriter Joe Knapp to Ben Folds, albeit with a more adventurous songwriting spirit. Listening to the group's third release, Key, I can see the vague connection between Knapp and Folds. Both play in piano-driven bands (though I'm still not convinced their vocals are identical), but if anything the last few years have seen Knapp immersing himself in the most mainstream of Britpop (Coldplay, Travis) and the orchestral pop of some of his indie colleagues (The Decemberists, Saturday Looks Good to Me). The result is an ambitious, sprawling sophomore effort that doesn't quite succeed in setting the group apart from their many influences.
Key begins with "Entropy", a 42 second electronic mood piece that carefully loops a child's loving message on his dad's answering machine on Father's Day. In other hands, this would be too precious to be effective, but Knapp manages to find the right emotional balance. This track leads into "Paper Snowflakes", one of the best songs on the disc. A buoyant, driving pop number, the song is unbelievably reminiscent of the aforementioned Coldplay (though a lot quirkier). It's a bold song that rises and falls, subtly changing tempos, but wraps things up in just over four minutes. "Chlorophyll" brings another Brit, namely Thom Yorke, to mind. With an eerie piano intro, delicate guitars, and Knapp's buried, reverbed voice drawing out and repeating the song's namesake, the song falls somewhere between "Pyramid Song" and "Morning Bell".
On other songs, however, Knapp switches his influences to acts on this side of the pond. With a softly waltzing accordion (played courtesy of Cursive's Tim Kasher), "Billy Budd" would squeeze nicely into any Decemberists release. In another direction, "Taxi Cab Driver" is a Jeff Tweedy-esque foot stomper, and the most straightforward rock song on the disc. Finally, perhaps as much as challenge to himself as to the listener, Knapp throws in two seven-minute plus tracks. "Sex in C Minor" and "Case of You/Wrinkle Wrinkle" are ambitious, but not memorable. The feat of songwriting is admirable, but these songs only serve to stretch the album to a longer running time than necessary.
Joe Knapp has surrounded himself with a stable crew of musicians. Pianist Daniel Knapp and bassist Erika Pederson particularly stand out, providing a solid rhythmic backdrop for Knapp's elaborate pop. With Key, Son, Ambulance have made a firm impression as a band to keep an eye and an ear on. While not an out and out success, Key at the very least establishes Knapp as a songwriting force. Despite the array of influences at work, he has succeeded in keeping his sound singular. Unfortunately, Key fails -- just barely -- of escaping those very sources of inspiration. With their next release, there is no doubt Son, Ambulance will make a mark that they can call their own.