Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Ambassador

Gabriel Kahane, an unabashed architecture nerd, would have you believe that The Ambassador is an album about buildings. And, to be fair, there's plenty of evidence to support that interpretation: for instance, each of the ten tracks on this record is subtitled with an address in Los Angeles, resulting in such instantly memorable song titles as Griffith Park (2800 E. Observatory Ave.) and Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.).

Indeed, the album's very name is derived from one of these locations (3400 Wilshire Boulevard, the former site of the Ambassador Hotel), although it also doubles as a concise summary of the role that Kahane fills throughout: he's an ambassador for LA, giving us a guided tour of such local landmarks as the Lovell House, Musso & Frank Grill, and the Bradbury Building.

And I guess The Ambassador is a classier title than 10 Los Angeles Landmarks You MUST Visit Before You Die.

The Ambassador's 43-minute runtime is filled with references to particular establishments and locations - even if you've never been to Los Angeles (and I certainly haven't), these songs have a very strong sense of place that's impossible to ignore. Kahane cleverly uses his list of notable addresses to show us numerous different aspects of Los Angeles: its tensions, its affluence, its poverty, its noir-ish charm, and the way Hollywood's tinsel tentacles extend slimily into the city's every last nook.

Ultimately, though, The Ambassador isn't 'about' buildings any more than it's 'about' arson. Both themes recur numerous times over the course of these songs, but in the end, The Ambassador is an album about LA's people, not its most famous structures. Each vignette allows us to glimpse the life of a different citizen, and with each one, we come to understand a little more about how people manage to live in a city that's unforgiving enough even when it's not being destroyed by the various threats listed in Villains:
"Why does Hollywood insist on destroying the city by numbers, by natural disasters?An elemental earthquake,A furnace of a fire,A rippling rainstorm, nuclear bombs or martians from the futureA dithering police force,A mutant sprung from a cage,A giant half-man horse,A frustrated actor on a spitball rampage!"
The implication here - and it's made explicit elsewhere on the album - is that life in Los Angeles can be challenging enough without all of these CGI menaces. Empire Liquor Mart demonstrates this in epic fashion: the song is sung from the POV of Latasha Harlins, who was shot dead in the titular liquor store at the age of 15. Kahane's lyric begins with Latasha's ghost leaving her body and watching as the city grows tenser and tenser in the aftermath of her death. Eventually, as that tension escalates into a series of riots, our narrator floats upward, surveying the city from above and describing with a kind of horrified wonder the "two kinds of light" she sees: the glow given off by LA's many signs and streetlamps, and the far more sinister flicker of the fires being started around the city.

Then there's a flashback to Latasha's childhood, which was rocked by tragedy on several foreboding occasions. Then we actually get a dramatic play-by-play of the shooting itself...just listen to it, it's a really incredible song.

Other characters are luckier than poor Latasha, struggling but still managing to live their lives in the City of Angels. By the time the album's last notes have rung off, we've met quite the cast of characters: there's the conman thinking wistfully of the people he's swindled (Black Garden); there's the self-sacrificing father singing his daughter a lullaby (Veda); there's the 'morning drinker' hunched over a bar while his wife slowly dies (Musso and Frank); and, finally, there's the traveller leaving LA on a train, reflecting on the effort his murderous white ancestors put in to reach the West Coast and the ease with which he's click-clacking away again (Union Station).

Collectively, these characters are far more engaging than any of the buildings they happen to find themselves in. Maybe some of the songs listed above are based on true events, just like Empire Liquor Mart, but whether they're real, fictional, or some combination of the two, it's the people who make The Ambassador such a compelling listen. Even the modernist masterpieces of Villains and the booby-trapped castle imagined in the bustlingly funky Slumlord Crocodile aren't as interesting as the folks through whose eyes we see them.

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