Alright, so I’m feeling compelled to say something I never, ever thought I’d say, and I’m just going to come out and say it: thank God for Maroon 5. No, no, I mean it; I don’t give a crap about their more recent stuff, but look back at 2002’s Songs About Jane. Whether you like it or not, that one album took funky, groove-heavy soul and reclaimed it from the one-name performers, making it once again possible to have an honest-to-whatever soul band.
I say all that because without that step a decade back, I’m not sure a band like Ambassadors could exist today, and that would be a freaking tragedy. Because at the end of the day, Ambassadors are a soul outfit, with their rock-solid rhythm section, the impassioned/sultry voice of frontman/multi-instrumentalist Sam Harris, and their incredible ability to pull off that whole “sexy” thing without coming off trite and poseurish.
It’s the rhythms that are the true stars here, if I’m honest; Harris, who also drums and plays bass, and full-time drummer Adam Levin burn low but with a white-hot heat, propelling the music forward and near-hypnotizing the listener into head-bobbing along. On tracks like “Unconsolable,” with its incredible, African-sounding beat, and “Love Like a Hole,” which stutter-steps along like a broken man who finds his feet no longer obey him, the rhythm is the focus of the song, and it’s amazing to witness.
As a band, mind you, Ambassadors are insanely tight, playing within these deceptively simple song structures and doing it with an intensity that’s impressive while never overwhelming the actual song.
“Falls,” for one, is a near-perfect song, thundering and epic but surprisingly straightforward, with one measly (and awesome) riff that repeats relentlessly beneath the entire fucking song — verse, chorus, break, everything — and a great low-end rumble/stomp anchoring it all. It’s the kind of song that you hear and think, “oh, yeah — that’s exactly how that should sound.”
And then, there’s Harris, and that voice. He swoops, croons, and howls over the music, coming off like Sting at points (on “Unconsolable,” in particular), Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam at others, and yes, Maroon 5’s own Adam Levine at various points throughout (see the falsetto in “Lay Me Down”). Hell, on the broken-down “Love Like a Hole,” Harris reminds me of nobody so much as Bill Withers, and I don’t make that particular comparison lightly. You can hear the heartbreak dripping from the words.
To make things even stranger, Ambassadors step smoothly into these great, great, Fleet Foxes-like vocal harmonies, as on opener “Weight/Lightness” or “(O Death),” channeling Queen down through some kind of pastoral filter.
The latter track, by the by, is noteworthy for its gorgeous defiance, although that feeling’s thrown off a bit by the declaration, “Death, show me your teeth / For I am trained in the art / of dentistry.” Um, what? The first time I heard it, I had to skip backwards to make sure I heard correctly, but yes, there it was.
It’s difficult to pick a high point here. “Falls” and “Unconsolable” are top contenders, the latter with its bitter fury barely restrained and lyrics that oscillate back and forth between love and confused recrimination, but then there’s “Lay Me Down,” which continues on from “(O Death)” but steps upwards into a driving, anthemic roar, one that combines sweeping orchestral movements with snarling, skin-tight funk and retro-rock bombast that’d make Lenny Kravitz put down his guitar if he ever heard it. (Speaking of which: could somebody play this for him, please?)
I can’t overlook “Caged Animals,” either; it starts out as a murky blues shuffle but cranks into something akin to Recoil’s barely-leashed ominous blues-noise rumble. And then there’s the crushing weight of the aforementioned “Love Like a Hole,” and closer “Bodybag”‘s gentle, swooning gospel (where the band finally lets guitarist
Noah Feldshuh show his stuff), and “Weight/Lightness,” which sounds like the meaner, cooler cousin of Cold War Kids…
You see the problem I’m running into with Litost. It’s one of those rare, rare albums where every freaking song is a gem, worth listening to all on its own and on infinite repeat. And yes, that’s exactly how I’ve got it playing, right now — hallelujah.