The Omaha music scene helped bring intense self-obsession and shredded folk-punk to indie-rock, but bands like Bright Eyes and Lullaby For The Working Class also regularly explore sprawl, both as a musical device and as a state of mind. Joe Knapp, the creative force behind Son, Ambulance, has embraced decompression over the course of his five years as a Saddle Creek regular, and on the band's second album, Key, Knapp ambles along in no particular hurry, trailing gentle melodies through a fine musical mist.
Knapp's Omaha contemporaries have avant-garde elements, but Son, Ambulance remains comparatively approachable. Key has a '70s-radio aesthetic, with rippling piano, clean country-rock guitars, and odd song structures giving experimental music a classic-rock context. A track like the nine-minute "Case Of You/Wrinkle Wrinkle" links up exiled-in-America Rolling Stones, glam-era David Bowie, and pre-boogie Thin Lizzy, while the draggy flamenco stylings of "Billy Budd," the twangy power-pop of "Taxi-Cab Driver," and the anthemic billow of "Pleasure, Now" sound eclectic but warmly familiar. Knapp's indistinct, somewhat whiny vocals hold Son, Ambulance back a bit, and Key drifts into blandness over the course of its leisurely 55 minutes, but the record holds together by sketching America's heartland as a place where the outlaw edge of culture winds up after it's chased out of the city.
Omaha's relaxed, rootsy mood has spread to bands like Now It's Overhead and The Mendoza Line, and to Portland, Oregon's Dolorean, whose first proper album, Not Exotic, floated through a melancholy alt-country haze, occasionally landing in places of crystalline beauty. The follow-up, Violence In The Snowy Fields, sounds more focused and song-oriented, but with no loss of the sorrowful atmosphere that was the band's initial selling point. The opening track, "Search," doubles as a crisp, uptempo country-rock track and a description of the album's open, questing nature. Alex James' lyrics remain adorned with a secondhand rural miserablism, but his sweetly delicate voice and Dolorean's winsome West Coast orchestrations—part Buffalo Springfield, part Poco—make lines like "Baby, let's die at the same time" sound urgently romantic. By the time Dolorean rolls around to the Band-like title track, it's established itself as a credible heir to the old hippie lope.