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Son, Ambulance: Key

Microphone shy, with a lilting, hushed tone, Joe Knapp of Son, Ambulance may not be the most self-assured guy in the room, but he sure can write a piano-driven indie song.

Often tagged with labels such as “Conor Oberst’s ex-roomie” or “drunken sailor fighter” (that’s our reference), Knapp has built on the musical — if not retail — success of his debut (the “Oh, Holy Fools” split with Bright Eyes) and 2001′s “Euphemystic,” with his band’s latest full-length, “Key.”

With producer A.J. Mogis and a new backing band comprised of Corey Broman (drums), Daniel Knapp (keys), Erika Pederson (bass) and Dylan Strimple (guitar), Knapp has created a textural ensemble from which he can spring his eccentric songwriting.

I first saw Joe Knapp perform under the guise of Son, Ambulance in a cramped apartment in Ames, Iowa with a hardwood living room floor serving as a stage. As Knapp tinkered at his keyboard, David Dondero accompanied on guitar to create a memorable performance.

Then there was a light show finale where Knapp unplugged and plugged in lamps for the final ten minutes as his keyboard repeated a preprogrammed melodic wail.

“Key” is a large step forward for Son, Ambulance, and the songwriting, production and lyrics easily show it. Experimenting with key signatures, tempos, rhythms and effects, Knapp’s latest offering blends the bravado of a weathered piano man with the timidity in love and emotion that haunts all singer/songwriters.

The bittersweet opener, “Paper Snowflakes,” sets a hushed tone that lingers through a motherly rocking “Chlorophyll.” Guest vocalist Jenna Morrison (a sketch artist from Omaha) adds vocals in “Sex in C-Minor” and “C-Minor Interlude” to bring the subdued chaos to a frenzied fervor.

Whether lucky in love or toiling in the depths of despair, I think you’ll enjoy this awe-inspiring album. Just avoid the drunken sailors.

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