Hearing Gabriel Kahane’s Version of Los Angeles, Onstage at BAM

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Photo: Max Gordon

A map of Los Angeles stretches across the stage at BAM, the freeways marked by ropes of lights like a citywide traffic jam seen from a helicopter. Downstage, books stack up in miniature skyscrapers. Upstage, wobbly towers of paper stand in for the Hollywood Hills. And into this topography of real estate and printed words steps the barefoot singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane, wearing a suit and an air of wry earnestness.

Over the next 75 minutes, he unspools The Ambassador, taking the audience on a tour of his L.A., alighting at significant addresses and spinning out their stories in hyperliterate pop songs. Alluring melodies snake around trellises of verse:

In this black garden
Of carrion light
There is a suspension of motion and stillness
That hollows the night.

The topics tend towards darkness but Kahane’s voice is light and flexible, with a pleasantly rough grain like a plank of unsanded pine. He somehow manages to write songs about gang shootings, assassination, arson, and high-body-count movies without making them seem violent. Kahane doesn’t really do anger. (He’s good at mild annoyance, though. “Why do villains / Always live in houses / Built by modernist masters?” he asks irritably, a lyric that might have begun as a tweet.) Instead, a vinegary sweetness seeps into the mostly mid-tempo music, which is always elegant, never too hot and never too cold. With his lyrical instincts and polite sense of humor, he could serenade a toilet plunger and make it feel loved.

The Ambassador is a handsomely crafted album that makes an even better show because John Tiffany’s direction brings out the era-hopping pleasures of the past. While his top-notch band looks on, Kahane wanders around the onstage detritus, excavating slightly obsolete technologies to play more antique artifacts. A VHS of Blade Runner plays on a tube TV. Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce flickers on a wall. The 70-year-old voices of Bogart and Bacall emerge from a 20-year-old boom box, inspiring Kahane to pay splendid tribute. While a recorded jazz band wheezes brassily, the singer gets some Philip Marlowe grit in his voice and snarls: “I’m generally not a morning drinker / Said the gold-tooth man to the barkeep / Ordering his second gimlet.” The Ambassador is Kahane’s ode to a city of actors, and he tries on a trunkful of musical costumes and attitudes, returning each time to the role that suits him best: the well-read bard of mid-century modern life.