Saturday, February 19, 2011

Album Review: Ambulance LTD - LP

Ambulance LTD: LP
[TVT 2004]


"Guitar solos are so back!" raved Rolling Stone magazine in May, 2004. Those solos would be courtesy of Ambulance LTD, an indie rock outfit from Harlem with a sound varying from dreamy pop to loud, dense shoegazing. It was back in 2004 that the band released this confident, mature rocker, officially titled "LP." But neither Rolling Stone's nod nor the praise of numerous other music critics has given the band much notoriety or public recognition since it was released. Furthermore the state of the band since has been turbulent and unfortunately dissolving: 3 of the 4 original members left to form The Red Romance citing "interpersonal dramas", leaving lone member Kevin Congleton on his own until 2008 when he acquired 3 new bandmates. But it was also in 2008 that their record label TVT filed for bankruptcy and then tried to sell their artists' back catalog, prompting Congleton and labelmates The Polyphonic Spree to sue.

All this is such a shame, because LP is indeed a very satisfying rocker that has the potential for mass appeal, even years after it was released.
Opener "Yoga Means Union" immediately shows the old Ambulance LTD flexing its guitar might as this instrumental rocker leads to an exciting climax. The use of distortion and the removal of drums at the climax add to the incredible ambiance and attitude of the song, which immediately is candidate for the best song on the album.

Enter Michael Di Liberto, the confident yet simultaneously restrained lead vocalist and guitarist of 2004's Ambulance LTD. His vocal debut on the album's second track "Primitive (The Way I Treat You)" is full of promise, but the song's high attitude and swagger suffer also come with a bit of cockiness and annoyance that is not smart for an early track in the album. The band quickly recovers, however, humbling themselves with an acoustic guitar, keyboard, and a muffled drum beat and electrical guitar on the more pleasing "Anecdote," which was featured in the background of a recent Nokia commercial. While pleasant sounding, it is ironic that this has basically led to the band's only 30 seconds of mainstream fame, as it can easily be interpreted as a depiction of heroin use.

Coming off that foot-tapper is the best song on the album, "Heavy Lifting." Half of the song is recorded as a lo-fi, almost Sebadoh-esque dream song that is undeniably cool in its delivery. Then, quite unexpectedly, an unshielded electric guitar leads the way into a drawn out falling action for the song that, wordlessly, closes out the first half's dreamy landscape in a totally different mood.

"Ophelia" and "Stay Where You Are" follow Ambulance LTD's standard, engaging formula of combining a quite standard, melodic rock guitar riff with a vocal presentation covered in a light cloud of distortion to create a calming, psychedelic environment, that simultaneously...well, rocks. "Sugar Pill" similarly combines both elements, but added is a constant "beeping" beat and loud, fast drumming that create a sense of panic and urgency that is also present in "Stay Tuned". It is especially not on the next track "Michigan," whose slow buildup and forgettable melodies make it the low point of the album. Next with that aforementioned song, "Stay Tuned" has a rather intense opening mood that is combined with mysterious lyrics as well as a lighter, more pop sounding chorus that is thoroughly satisfying.

On "Swim," Ambulance LTD combines both dreamy instrumentation and vocals to create a very mellow whose melody rises over the chorus like a wave. The tempo changes a little over halfway through the next tune "Young Urban" when the mellow song rises to a climax followed by the loudest minute in the half on the album. This final minute and a half is the clearest example of shoegazing on the album as the song builds in intensity with loud drumming and a heavily distorted vocal and guitar riff.

The album's concluding piece is where the band's Velvet Underground connection lies. The band performs a solid cover Lou Reed's "The Ocean" from his self-titled debut solo album from 1972. Furthermore, in 2007, Congleton was working with John Cale to develop new material for what would have been a new Ambulance LTD album, but in keeping with a trend, neither a new LP nor any Congleton/Cale collaborations have surfaced.

So what is Ambulance LTD today? Your guess is as good as mine. With no new music in five years (after 2006's New English EP), it's perhaps easiest to say they're down for the count. The cruel intervention of the music gods have made sure a promising band in Ambulance LTD was cut down just as it was blossoming. But to dwell too much on the band's perhaps fatal growing pains is to miss what we should be thankful for: LP. The reason we think about where they are now is because in 2004 Ambulance LTD released a confident, melodic, fully accomplished shoegaze-rock album that still holds its own today. Through the reshuffling, lawsuits, "interpersonal dramas", and bad management, to the four guys behind LP: be proud.

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