by Jill Kimball
What springs to mind when you think of Los Angeles? Most will immediately think of sun, surf, and superficiality.
The city of nearly 4 million falls victim to a heck of a lot of stereotypes considering its size and diversity. But we native Californians (even Northerners who are, ahem, not always fond of our neighbors to the South) know LA is a lot more complicated than the rest of the world would have you believe.
The composer Gabriel Kahane spent the first two years of his life in Venice Beach, but he grew up primarily in Upstate New York and Northern California. It wasn’t until adulthood that he began to understand the rich history and complexity of his birthplace. His newest CD, “The Ambassador,” is a wonderful tribute to Los Angeles in all its beautiful and gritty glory. The album, released on Sony Masterworks, is a testament to Kahane’s versatility as a singer and songwriter. It provides proof (as if we needed it) that classical, indie and pop needn’t exist apart from each other. The whole album is available for streaming on Spotify below:
Part of the reason this album appeals to large cross-sections of people is that its producers included Matt Johnson of the band St. Vincent, Casey Foubert of Sufjan Stevens‘ band, and Rob Moose of Bon Iver–three people who have mastered the art of creating music that’s unusual yet likable. But another part is the unique structure of this album. Each of its 10 tracks takes place at a different Los Angeles address and contains words from a different person’s perspective. It’s as much a tribute to the city’s awe-inspiring and wildly varied architecture as it is to the colorful residents.
It’s clear from this whole disc that Kahane has spent a lot of time in Central LA, near Griffith Park, Hollywood Boulevard and the recently revitalized downtown. One of the more famous locations Kahane features is the Bradbury building, a filming location for “Blade Runner,” “(500) Days of Summer” and numerous other movies. But there’s a less glamorous side to the building: it houses the Los Angeles Police Department’s Internal Affairs division and is nicknamed “the Oven” because officers attend their own disciplinary hearings here and often “get burned.” In “Bradbury,” Kahane juxtaposes mellow, delicate melodies with lyrics that paint dramatic cinematic pictures, and he occasionally builds musical tension to imply moments when these two elements are at odds with each other.
The album’s central song is unquestionably “Empire Liquor Mart,” the site of a 1991 murder that shook South Los Angeles to its core. The words are from the perspective of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, who was shot fatally by the market’s owner. The resulting outrage is believed to have been a catalyst for the 1992 LA riots. In an intimate performance with delicate vocals and spare instrumentation, Kahane brilliantly and beautifully sheds light on the long and fraught history of race relations in one of America’s most diverse cities.
“Is there defeat in a train to L.A./When Manifest Destiny brought us all this way?” Kahane asks in his song “Union Station.” Millions of people hopeful for a big break or a better life have come here, become disillusioned and left. To Kahane, the city’s main train station in “elegant decline” is a romantically tragic place to find yourself; if you’re leaving, it might mean you’ve given up on your dreams.
With the help of Kahane’s silky voice and spare instrumentation, the whole album effortlessly carries keen observations and clever commentary without ever seeming pretentious or overwrought. When the music does get fuller, it makes subtle nods to music of the past, whether it’s to film noir scores in “Veda”, a track inspired by the film “Mildred Pierce,” or to the era of Big Band and swing in “Musso & Frank,” a grill whose patrons once included movie stars and American authors.
As an added bonus, the album provides a fascinating trip through the city’s quirky collection of famous buildings, from Art Deco to Cubist to Spanish to just plain bizarre. From these songs I learned about the St. George Hotel, destroyed repeatedly by fire; the angular Lovell house that was an object of praise and then a target of ridicule; and the Ambassador Hotel, which faded from its former glory and ultimately closed after an assassination took place there.
And that is Kahane’s point: While Los Angeles is a city that represents all things mythical and aesthetic–the fame, the fortune–it is also extraordinarily vulnerable–to fickle taste, to natural disaster and to changing priorities.
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