There must be something in the water in Nebraska, another of those sparse midwestern states that's recognition in the world - or even the United States - is sparse. However, Saddle-Creek records, run by Conor Oberst and a handful of associates and friends, has brought some credibility to a state devoid of acknowledgement in any specifically important area. What's surprising is that, even though the label has existed for less than ten years, it has become a prominent figure in the wide world of, uhhh, indie. Bright Eyes, Cursive, Rilo Kiley, Beep Beep, The Faint, Azure Ray, and Son, Ambulance make up one of the most expressive and solid lineups in quite a long time. What do they all have in common? Well, to be frank, none of the groups mentioned have anything specific that they share, besides a genuine one love for honest, emotionally driven music with a good dose of good 'ol melody.
Before the release of Oh Holy Fools
in 2001, Son, Ambulance happened to be a fairly unknown band. No surprise, since this is considered to be their debut, and what is a debut without sharing it with Bright Eyes, huh? Both artists have subtle familiararities, mostly concerning the mellow, warm, and most importantly melodic approach to music that each uses to full effect. Acoustic guitars and piano are often implemented in the songs, sometimes the only instruments - besides the voice - to appear throughout. The one unique thing about Son, Ambulance may be their undeniable Belle & Sebastian influences. Their music is quite a bit more soothing and mellow than Bright Eyes, often with a good deal of piano and upbeat compositions that allow breaks between Conor Oberst's melancholic songwriting. The opening song, "Brown Park", is one with the most considerable Belle & Sebastian influence. With thumping drums, piano, strings, and Joe Knapp's restrained, soothing voice, it could easily be on The Boy With the Srab Strap
. It doesn't hurt that his songwriting skills are wonderfully solid and clever, again showcased on "Kaite Come True". But what is really great is that the man can write honest and humble lyrics but still sound like he's singing about something profound that we will never understand, which happens to be the case about quite a few of Bright Eyes' songs on here also.
Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes provide a rounded contrast to the bittersweet, well-arranged pop songs of Son, Ambulance. While his songs tend to sound familiar to 2000's Fevers & Mirrors
, the offerings are still wonderful. For the most part, he returns to the storytelling, neo-folk tradition that he established on previous albums. Thus is the case with "Going to California", one of the most depressing songs on the album. Fingerpicked acoustic guitar and breezy flutes provide the melodies. Conor's vocal performance is typically strong and passionate, delivering lines such as "oh dear amateur orator they will detail their pain in some standard refrain they will recite their sadness like it's some kind of contest" hinting at a common topic of disgust with 'rehearsed emotion', hinting at himself and giving himself the title as 'the champion of idiots', but it also hints at how wonderful music can be and it's affect on people's lives ("but a kid carries his Walkman on that long bus ride to omaha I know a girl who cries when she practices violin cause each note sounds so pure it just cuts into her"). "No Lies, Just Love" finds itself as the most emotionally bare, with gorgeous piano and organ, used in this case as an expression of sadness more than anything. Organ has always been associated with gloomy things, but it happens to be a beautiful sound when used right (which it is here). Closing off Oh Holy Fools
is "Kathy With a K's Song", beginning as a low-fi singer-songwriter piece; one of which Conor's voice is overcome with sorrow, as his voice quivers at the end of lines. It morphs into a Fevers & Mirrors
esque, uplifting barrage of strings, guitars, drums and cymbals, and Conor shouting. His knack for writing honest love songs really shines through on Oh Holy Fools
Do I need a summary, really
Kaite Come True
Going for the Gold
Kathy With a K's Song