A former composer-in-residence with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who has also written commissions for the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Kronos Quartet as well as his own musical about the artists who, like Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden, lived in Brooklyn Heights during World War II, Gabriel Kahane is not your average singer-songwriter. Likewise, his new album which, focusing its gaze on his birthplace, muses on life in Los Angeles through 10 songs, each of which is located at a specific building on a specific street and dedicated to a specific person, reflecting his recent study of the city’s architecture and cultural landscape.
Indeed, the falsetto, walking rhythm Villains is linked to 4616 Dundee Drive, aka Lovell House, a modernist residence designed by Richard Neutra in the late 20s, the song that talks of his falling out with fellow architect Rudy Schindler, ponders setting up home in the house where Pulp Fiction was filmed with the room where Uma OD’d as the nursery and muses on LA and Hollyood disaster movies, and Die Hard as a reflection of more black and white times.
It’s a temporal as well as geographic journey, stylistically and narratively spanning the 40s to the present day with musical reference points including Paul Simon (Black Garden) and Harry Nilsson (Griffith Park) while the brass embellished Musso and Frank (667 Hollywood Blvd, dedicated to Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe) comes over like a jazzy 40s swing noir musical conceived by a collaboration between Brian Wilson and Randy Newman, all in under four minutes.
Such complexity is also evident in the dawn atmosphere of Bradbury (the building atop where Rutger Hauer , to whom it is dedicated, died in Blade Runner), its piano bedrock layered with strings and drums playing against the grain, while Slumlord Crocodile has lyrics about burning it all down set in an itchy, edgy rhythm jagged with distant brass. And that’s a love song.
A slow waltzing melody underpins the equally jazz-textured Veda (featuring Aoife O’Donovan on backgound vocals) and you don’t have to be a Hollywood detective to realise that the title, the address (1 Pierce Drive) and the dedication to Joan Crawford all tie the track to the latter’s 1944 Oscar winner melodrama Mildred Pierce.
The album’s centrepiece is the nine minute Empire Liquor Mart, a song for and sung from the perspective of Latasha Harlins, the black schoolgirl shot and killed in 1991 at 9127 S.Figueroa St when the store’s Korean owner mistakenly thought she was stealing a bottle of orange juice, an incident cited as one of the causes of the 1992 riots. Comprised of three sections it moves from a sparse prologue with just vocal and minimal strings through a more uptempo passage with introduction of electric piano and guitar, an orchestral flourish giving way to a keyboard backed falsetto reflection of Harlins’ family history with its Book of Job reference and ending on events recounting a final flourish that puts me in mind of Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones album were it a Broadway Musical.
Classic Simon is also a signpost for the Ambassador Hotel, its nostalgic elegy to the now razed building with its lines about Wilshire Boulevard, Fairbanks and Pickford, busboys and bellmen sung over a simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar.
Dedicated to the late German academic W.G. Sebald, the album ends in the waiting room at Union Station, a muted, piano accompanied ballad that seems to be about how we have become diminished over time, continent-mapping quests reduced to cramming into a train from L.A as ”the line from faded to forget is crossed in the hall of the lost.” There have been hundreds of songs written about Los Angeles. Few of them are as good as these.
Review by: Mike Davies
The Ambassador is out now
UK Tour Dates:
Mar 14 – The Hug and Pint, Glasgow
Mar 16 – Kings Place Hall Two, London
To see an interactive map which includes some commentary as well as fan photos of some of the places covered in the album click here.