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First Listen: Gabriel Kahane, 'The Ambassador'

Gabriel Kahane's new album, <em>The Ambassador</em>, comes out June 3.
Josh Goleman
Courtesy of the artist
Gabriel Kahane's new album, The Ambassador, comes out June 3.

Composer and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane says that the inspiration for his new album, The Ambassador, is 10 buildings in Los Angeles — appropriate, given what a gifted musical architect he is.

The Ambassador is structured as a set of 10 vignettes, each a meditation on life in the City of Angels (as well as its many demons). The narrative of each song is located at a particular L.A. street address, on a time scale that skips around the city's history, from the 1940s to the present. Working with that as his framework, Kahane slips in and out of guises brilliantly, from the noirish brass slides and growls he gives "Musso and Frank (6667 Hollywood Blvd.)" to the folky feel of "Ambassador Hotel (5400 Wilshire Blvd.)," whose cadences recall Simon & Garfunkel. A mere talented mimic would take each of these personae on and off as a clever party trick; here, Kahane weaves enough contemporary threads from one song to the next to make a coherent whole.

Kahane comes to this project with a list of talented collaborators, including Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (here appearing as a violinist), vocalists Aoife O'Donovan and Shara Worden (a.k.a. My Brightest Diamond), co-producers Casey Foubert (Sufjan Stevens), Matt Johnson (St. Vincent) and Rob Moose (Bon Iver), along with a passel of backing musicians regularly identified as best-and-brightest members of New York's "indie-classical" scene.

Their collective presence testifies to Kahane's serious compositional chops, which he's brought back to the fore on this album. We already knew that Kahane makes a habit of finding beauty and meaning by stirring together the flotsam and daily particulars of life with existential concerns — who else would have written a song cycle based on Craigslist ads? It's a mix that has become his signature as a singer-songwriter.

The heart of The Ambassador is meant to be "9127 South Figueroa (Empire Liquor Mart)," a song written from the perspective of Latasha Harlins, a ninth-grader shot to death by a storekeeper in 1991, the year before the L.A. riots. Some of the song's lines land a tad clunkily, such as when Shara Worden swoops in to incant clichés like "I was too young to die." Even so, the ethereal textures that Kahane creates are fabulous.

The best moments of The Ambassador come when Kahane carefully constructs something like "Bradbury (304 Broadway) — a track that, as a standard-length three-and-a-half minute song, should reasonably fall to the ground in a heap. Instead, it soars. What starts as Kahane's piano and voice alone, working in rhythmic sync, builds crazily, with layers of sound coming in and out of phase with each other to stunning, almost Ives-ian effect. Anybody who can speak all of those musical languages as fluently as Kahane does needs to be heard.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.