I found Kahane’s music to be really enjoyable even if it was never really that catchy. His songs are complex and thought-inducing, with many layers. Although I found that after listening to his songs a number of times, I could really find the hooks in there.
His voice has a kind of soft quality to it–not quiet, but very much not harsh, which allows his enunciations to be heard quite easily.
For “Charming Disease,” Kahane plays keyboards. He’s accompanied by strings and a guitar (I love the coloration of the guitar). Since he also writes classical music, his pop songs have a distinctly classical feel (even without the string quartet to back him up). So the piano lines that he plays are simple chords, they are full lines. And there are times when the guitar plays beautiful counterpoint to his chords. This song is about an alcoholic (“I took you home and took away your keys”), but you’d never know the darkness of the lyrics from the melody which is bright and cheerful. I love the middle section of the song–the chord progressions during the “Wine Dark Sea” are, in my mind anyway, very Kahane, and they’re what I love about his music.
For “Where Are the Arms” he switches to acoustic guitar. You know the song isn’t going to be simple when he counts of “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6” I love that he plays a continuing picked section while the guitar and strings play chords behind him, really fleshing out the song.
As they prepare for the final song, one of the violinists knocks over her music stand and he jokes, how did you fit an 11 piece band back her but we can’t get a string quartet. Someone shouts that it’s the strings–the bows. Kahane says, yes, “One string is two humans–ego and otherwise.” To groans from the band.
For “Last Dance” I love that he sings his vocal melody along with the guitar melody (something Frank Zappa used to do–it’s complex and interesting). And while there is certainly a melody there, he really complicates it with all of the single notes. The strings come in and the song modifies somewhat until his voice seems to resume the complex singing style. But then in the middle of the song (“she begins to sing”) it switches to a very catchy section with a refrain of “sex and cigarettes.” It’s the most immediate thing in the show and shows how poppy Kahane can be. even if the ending is quite abrupt.
He really deserves repeated and close listening.
[READ: February 5, 2016] “Learning to Look at L.A.”
I know Gabriel Kahane from when he opened for Punch Brothers this past summer. I really enjoyed his set and found his album charming and eccentric but very literary.
Turns out that at the time of the release of The Ambassador he wrote this piece for the New Yorker as well. It explores the themes that he delved into for his album, especially architecture in L.A. He even opens with a discussion of Die Hard. Like his song “Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.)” which contains the lyric:
I’ve been thinking a lotAbout action movies of the 1980’sParticularly Die Hard,Which seems to illustrateSo many of the anxieties
Central to a time + place:Japanese capitalThe waning of the cold warPride in a downtownWhat did they build it for?
He says that his “affection for this film is one hundred-percent unironic.”
Die Hard can be viewed as a comparison of New York to LA: the LAPD is soft, while McClane, a New Yorker, suffers mightily to get the job done.
New York-L.A. relations have always had some kind of strange friction (look as far back as Woody Allen in the 1970s), but he says that after 25 years they are approaching kind of détente. So he is not going to “fan the flames of the ‘New York is over’ narrative as advanced variously by David Byrne, Patti Smith, et al [or]…. make value judgements about which coastal megalopolis is superior.”
He wonders why LA is still seen as unsuitable for serous thought, though. This is why people justify the squalid and cramped conditions of L.A.–himself included, he has lived there for a decade.
There has been a great body of exceptional output made in Southern California. He references the British architectural historian Reyner Banham who went to L.A. and took seriously the bungalows and hamburger stands. He was even eloquent about a California hamburger.
His description of the architectural beauty that is a West Coast burger might make New Yorkers bristle “In New York’s Shake Shack burger the delicious but no-nonsense sandwich is sheathed in wax paper wrapper that just barely contains the squat little fellow. While the Office Burger in Santa Monica is placed in a wire basket slathered in onion compote and blue cheese and bedecked with a generous heap of arugula.”
Kahane references some architectural advances that could only happen in California because of its relationship to the out-of doors and its mild climate.
In New York, especially with some recently brutal winters, we tend to think of built spaces as fighting against nature as opposed to welcoming it.
The most fascinating moment comes at the end where he says that most of the word understands Los Angeles through Hollywood representations of it. Small snippets without ever really seeing the whole place.
Kahane says he wanted to hate L.A. He was born there but grew up in Northern California and then lived in New York. But he says that his own vulnerability while he was living in LA allowed him to see the ache and vulnerability of Los Angeles.