The Last Post-Post-Punks: Narcolepsy, Danceable Sadness, and Gallows Humor...
“Why do I make music?” ponders Colin Ambulance—CARDBOARD LAMB’s frontman and East L.A.’s philosopher-in-residence: “Because I’ve got to get that shit out of my head somehow!” Ambulance [Family name: O’Donnell] has neither the focus nor patience for verbal filigree. Ambulance owns no car, borrows his musical gear, and rarely maintains an apartment (or girlfriend) in excess of a couple months. What, one might ask, furnishes Ambulance’s livelihood? Artwork sales on Facebook, of course. And yet it’s these material obstacles—along with a healthy surfeit of physical disorders (“narcolepsy, sleep apnea, social anxiety disorder, bipolar, little ears”)—that infuse his lyrical terrain with acerbic insight and piquant comedy noir; consumed by its own polarity, Ambulance’s lyricism is at once refreshingly optimistic and lustily perverse. Consider the trenchancy of Fall for Your Foes: “And when the silver linings are too thin to see, I always bring a roll of foil with me...”
Appropriating as their band name the title of an obscure 1980 single by Philadelphia new wave pioneers Crash Course in Science, CARDBOARD LAMB is something of a sui generis in the oversaturated—and oh, so hip—East L.A. enclaves of Echo Park and Silverlake. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ambulance is fast to focus his energy on lyrical craft and artistic individuation instead of squandering it in the relentless struggle to champion a scene—or worse still—join one. “I try not to get too familiar with most bands making music today. I feel that if I was listening to a lot of current stuff, I might get subconsciously influenced and end up making music for last year,” states the mercurial Ambulance.
Where, then, does this aversion to fair-weather musical aestheticism leave Ambulance, lyrically? World War Two, powder drugs, and solipsism are a few of the motifs that populate Ambulance’s poetic corpus. Though ruminations on the decadent artist lifestyle appear within a few CARDBOARD LAMB songs, their presence is hardly representative of the band’s creative platform, and Ambulance himself is obtuse on the matter: “Maybe the whole thing for me is, I just have all these things I wish I could express/discuss with important people in my life that are now gone forever. I just figured that out now. Wow. Thanks for the catharsis.”
Catharsis achieved, tragic conditions satisfied, a word on the music is here in order. CARDBOARD LAMB, whose music represents the culled and cultured influence of groups like Wire, Gang of Four, and PublicImage Limited, is not conversant in musical convention. Though subsumable within the generous taxonomic umbrella of post-punk [Colin Ambulance doesn’t use an umbrella], Don’t Forget to Die is analogous, perhaps, to the product of Colin Newman sitting down to write songs with Charles Bukowski at the lyrical helm; the only material comforts of their writing session: a few pints of Blue Raspberry Mad Dog 20/20 and a carton of cheap cigarettes. “If I didn’t make so many poor decisions, I would have little subject matter,” quips Ambulance.
But analogy isn’t for everyone. That being the case, Ambulance and his accomplices (named: Jared Keller— bass, Michelle Reeves—keys, Tom Ackerman—drums) have already given us a dozen reasons to listen, in the form of their debut full-length, Don’t Forget to Die. “[The title] came from the lyrics of my favorite song on the record, ‘Walter on the Roof,’” Ambulance explains. As with most songs destined for endurance (at the very least, infamy), “Walter...” finds its origin in real life. “I wrote this song and one other a couple of years ago on a night I really intended to kill myself. Fortunately I turned that shit into something other than a dead Colin body. I guess the idea behind it is that part of being one of the ‘amazing people’ is knowing the right time to die.”
“Walter on the Roof” may be Ambulance’s favorite, but each track on the record testifies to the band’s multifaceted solidity and zeal. “Bedside Manner=Gallows Humor” starts the album as a manic, double time homage to The Attractions, replete with skipping drums and an anthemic chorus. “Exile (Set Me Free)” showcases the band’s idiomatic approximation of the space-rock tradition, with the Tones ON Tail-esque synth lattice, jangly bell-chime hooks and baritone vocal drawl. “The German Judge” evinces the band’s reverence for unadulterated, lo-fi, Buzzcockian punk rock, while “A Suitcase Or A Coffin” affirms CARDBOARD LAMB’s ability to juxtapose swanky, kinetic rhythms and aerial vocals with the casual élan that so many among of the indie-pop subclass strive for in indignation. Adds Ambulance “I love dark music and I love sad songs. I guess what I’m trying to create is danceable sadness...”
Perhaps CARDBOARD LAMB will prove to be the last soldiers in the post-punk vanguard; maybe they will emerge, instead, as the architects of a genre that in its nascency lacks a convenient handle. But music worth listening to is rarely convenient, and frequently eludes classification. While the tastemakers of the musical mainstream and underground investigate CARDBOARD LAMB’s artistry and uncompromising commitment to lyrical eclecticism, Ambulance and his bandmates will continue as always—in alternating fits of performance and songwriting.
Creativity awaits no universal imprimatur and neither does CARDBOARD LAMB. Indeed, Ambulance’s own “Bedside Manner...” lyrics appear band-reflexive in just this way:
“It's a difficult procedure / So be quiet in the bleachers when it starts.”