Americans, once driven to explore and change the world, and remake it in our image, have found reality less forgiving than the dreams our forefathers dreamed. War and economic realities that crashed on our shores for the last 100 years forced a reconciliation with the possible, the unforgivable, the necessary, and our ideals.
Growth and tumult marked the 20th century. Pure ambition may define the 21st. Medical advancements, activists seeking cures for cancer and HIV/AIDS, and all that ails us – including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for troops returning from a decade of war. The news cycle is dangerously fast. When mistakes are made, a brief “oopsies” is broadcast or printed in tiny font and buried where large audiences are unlikely to see it.
But still, we march forward. Seeking love and desire and knowledge and to make a difference. Films on the silver screen reflect our curiosities and imperfections. From Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty to small screen divining rods like HBO’s Girls or ABC’s Scandal and others that depict family, relationships, and our existence, all attempt to deconstruct the world we live in. Our music unites and inspires us still. The West, with all our indulgence and self-awareness and self-denial, remain the fortunate ones. We have freedom from fear and the freedom to explore nuances of the human condition.
Generational competition is a blood sport. The “get off my lawn” crowd exists in perpetuity. Youth looks askance at the anger and disappointment of their elders. Constant tension exists between those who truly live and those who focus on constructing of an artifice. Deny oxygen to political and cultural biases, and it may lead to revelation.
Much as Facebook revolutionized relationships, and Twitter, Upworthy, and live streaming technology is transforming our news consumption, there are artists breaking barriers and exploring timeless themes in thoroughly modern ways – with a firm grasp of classic literature and philosophy.
On a drive through Williamsburg, Virginia a few months ago, a voice leaked through the speakers on the radio just as Richmond stations were fading and the Hampton Roads stations grew stronger. The voice was haunting, the lyrics piercing. The digital display read Litost, and I knew at once something beautiful was happening.
Litost is a Czech word embraced by exiled Czech author Milan Kundera in his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It describes an intensity of emotional being coexisting with a psychological torment that consumes us, often punctuated with desire and loss. The song Litost was penned by a 24 year old man from New York, Sam Harris. The front man for the Ambassadors, his lyrics and vocals are paralyzing. The Ambassadors embody a knowing-ness not present in the tinny vibrations of Mumford and Sons.
After downloading their EP, also titled Litost, the fix was in. Sam Harris, with his older brother Casey, Noah Feldshuh, and Adam Levin make up a powerful, prescient quartet. Urgency and desire mate with exquisite lyrics and arrangements, particularly on Lay Me Down and the complicated Unconsolable.
I remember when REM were barely more than a garage band. I was a young girl in suburban Atlanta who taped them one night. I still have that crackling, warbly, and powerful recording of REM’s genius in the mid-80s. Michael Stipe’s voice and poignant depiction of suffering was always in evidence. Sam Harris is omniscient in every note. He attacks and smites and seduces. The band attacks with equal fire.
They recently played at The NorVa in Norfolk, Virginia. I sat down with Sam and Casey before the show. Inquiring minds wanted to know where these Millennials came by such dark inspiration and soul-stealing earthiness. I asked Sam who or what is his muse. “My mom, and my dad… and Robert Duvall. I love his skill on screen. He is both powerful and restrained.”
Casey offered comic relief when asked who served as his muse, “Gimme five minutes.” Five minutes to the second, he piped up again, “McCoy Tyner, that’s my muse.” Tyner is a renowned musician closely identified with John Coltrane. This influence is palpable in the music.
Beyond the muse lies the full pantheon of inspirational figures and artists, and how Litost emerged from inspiration to the single was Sam’s story to tell. It was “just a breakup, long after it was over, and I had been reading Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, some Murakami - The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and DH Lawrence. Litost is Kundera’s word, and I wasn’t even sure if we would use this song on the EP.”
His fluency in expressing litost came into acute focus when they took the stage. Harris’ charisma and performance will eat your soul, consume your joy, and bring you to an undiscovered post-love apocalypse. Casey surrenders to the music gods, only to command them. Adam Levin and Noah Feldshuh are like quiet, fierce guardians of the gates.
Music and literature in every age is punctuated and punctured by revolutionaries without masters. Like Dave Matthews, or REM, or Peter Murphy, even Bowie, the Ambassadors stand poised to be an enthralling soundtrack for Millennials searching for depth and jagged but beautiful edges.
Tour dates are Here.