The Amazing: Ambulance

Ambulance finds the Amazing pushing forward, trying new angles, and adding moments of clarity and sparseness to their trademark bittersweet gauze.
The Amazing

The open-ended nature of the Amazing’s sound rises right out of the band’s name itself. The amazing what, you might wonder. A modifier with nothing to modify, just gaping out into emptiness. But this sense of openness, of not knowing what’s coming next or even where structure ends and improvisation or experiment begins is the band’s chief strength. The group’s last album, Picture You, was an excellent mixture of pop sensibility, narcotic haze, and confident experimentation. The songs drifted and stretched, but where they ended up always sounded both surprising and somehow inevitable.

Ambulance was created much in the same way Picture You was. The band wrote and learned the songs quickly and set to recording them live in studio in just a few takes. The idea is to keep the songs fresh, to leave room to add new wrinkles to the tunes. But if the approach is the same here, the songs themselves are very different in tone. Picture You, despite its dark album cover, always drifted towards some faint light. Ambulance has a lighter cover, steeped in white and bright greys, but these tones still feel cool, washed out, isolated. That feel permeates the record. The opening title track starts with the rumble of tom drums and reverb-drenched guitar phrasings. Before singer Christoffer Gunrup comes in with his haunting vocals, a faintly echoed piano fills up the space, clarion clear and deeply lonely. It sits in contrast to the gauzy sounds the band usually whips up, but its clarity makes it sound all the more melancholy. Gunrup’s smudged, bittersweet vocals only double-down on that lonesome quality.

The band still uses heavy layers of guitar and distant percussion, but where Picture You filled a room, Ambulance scrapes our dark crags of space. Some of the best songs here tie the band’s penchant for layering and improvisation to strict structure. The best of these is “Blair Drager”. The verses are spare, riding on a noir-black yet faintly funky rhythm. It’s the rare moment bass and drums get center stage in the Amazing, and you’ll wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. Because even as Gunrup sings about “all the fucked up people”, it’s the rhythm that sells the displacement and isolation. It also sets us up for a brilliantly sweeping chorus, presenting the band’s heavy layers as a contrast rather than a starting point. Other songs don’t hold a verse-chorus-verse structure so much as they circuit back around to the same elements in ever-widening circles. “Floating” ebbs and flows, returning to rolling guitar lines and a sort of tidal vocal melody over and over again to mesmerizing effect. “Through City Lights” pushes the Amazing’s repetitive structures and dark mood to its logical extreme. The song is as spare as anything the band has ever done, and yet the details — the way one guitar’s low jangle responds to another’s high shimmer, for instance — are still there. But the song’s nearly eight minutes tease the listener with the possibility for a crescendo that never comes. Instead, the song just rolls, slowly and melancholy, on to its end. It’s a beautiful use of subtle tension, a shift in focus that the band hasn’t ever nailed quite as well as it does there.

The song marks a high point on Ambulance, in part because it’s so well executed, but also because the album’s closing songs try similar tricks yet achieve lesser returns. The last two tracks on Ambulance move away from the pysch-pop and rock traditions the band usually plays in and veer towards more stately folk. Both “Moments Like These” and “Perfect Day for Shrimp” aim for the sparer end of the Amazing’s sound, but both end up feeling thin instead. “Moments Like These” is pleasant enough, with a rolling, pastoral feel, but the acoustic guitar doesn’t circle back so much as it feels stuck in the same repetitive phrasings. The song seems aware of its own limitations within a traditional pop structure, as it tries to shift midway through into a British-folk breakdown that unravels the song rather than adding complexity. “Perfect Day for Shrimp” is more interesting, but still stuck between spaces, between a cool, almost industrial rhythm and warm guitars, between gauzy layers and muddled confusion.

What these moments and a few others share in common shows the one flaw in an otherwise strong album. Ambulance finds the Amazing pushing forward, trying new angles at their established sound. But these later songs make the band seem uncomfortable in new, spare settings. Gentle Stream and Picture You are charmingly hazy records, and the best parts of Ambulance add some clarity to that mix, which in turn adds new complications. Some moments here, though, seem forced in their haziness, more intentionally muddled than made sweetly gauzy. Gunrup, for instance, often trails off in the second halves of his lines, so that you’re lured in by the first half and then the second just gets smudged into incoherence. Maybe it’s about the impressionistic meaning of these songs, or some intentional denial of meaning or representation in this music, but with the songs themselves sounding so strong without relying on the same sort of gauze, this delivery feels all of a sudden like an unnecessary conceit. It’s not one that sinks Ambulance, not by a long shot, but the parts of this album that make it so good are the parts that seem newest to the Amazing’s arsenal, and the ones the band should keep pushing at going forward.

RATING 6 / 10
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