Category Archives: the war on drugs

The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient

There’s a Bill Hicks joke about the US government’s longstanding anti-narcotics campaign that pops into my head every time I talk about, write about or listen to The War On Drugs. I’ll leave it to your Google-mining skills to fill in the detail, but I’m sure you can guess whose side Hicks was on. It’s an appropriate introduction to Adam Granduciel and his reconstructed band, since nostalgic nudges are the currency they trade in most heavily. Their first album,Wagonwheel Blues, was a wonderfully rickety old affair that nodded to its authors’ preoccupation with a Jewish boy by the name of Zimmerman. Three years on and The War On Drugs’ have moved on: materially and musically, but thankfully, they’re still blissfully stoking the flames of yesteryear, with beautiful results.

The “new” sound was actually showcased on last year’s fantastic Future Weather EP (on which three of the eight vocal tracks here were featured), but it draws from a classic template. There are shades of Springsteen, Joshua Tree era U2 and final track ‘Blackwater’ proves that Granduciel’s Dylan fixation is alive and well in 2011. As with their debut, though, it would be wrong to call them revisionists. Rather than aping any one artist in particular, The War On Drugs have built a ramshackle, sonic time machine. From the gauzy, sepia-tinged synths that envelop the record throughout; to the wistful lyrics and vocals of the irrepressible frontman: listening to Slave Ambient sometimes feels like you’ve walked straight into a daydream

Despite the detached aura (and ever so slight whiff of psychedelia), this is anthemic fare and is loaded with moments of head-back-eyes-closed splendour. Opening track, ‘Best Night’ untangles itself from the early bed of languid guitar to provide the most sing-along moment The War on Drugs have ever produced. ‘The Animator’ (one of a quartet of perfectly placed / paced instrumental tracks) segues gorgeously into the swaggering ‘Come To The City’ and ‘Baby Missiles’, with its Born In The USA issue backbeat, is as close as the band will ever get to breakneck.

There is little doubt whose band this is these days. But Granduciel’s voice is acquiescent throughout. Sometimes he whoops (‘Come To The City’), sometimes he sneers (‘It’s Your Destiny’), but for the most part, he is content to bury himself in the maelstrom of swirling guitars and driving percussion. In accepting sole control of the band he and Kurt Vile started in Philadelphia eight years ago, Granduciel has proven himself the equal of his celebrated, erstwhile sparring partner. Slave Ambient is a fine album that deserves to be recognised amongst the finest to have seen this lap of the sun. Nitpicking, I would suggest that those who parted with their hard-earned for Future Weather may be disappointed to find much of the material here too, but in new context, it sounds fresh. The rest of us should be toasting a year in which Granduciel and Vile (with Smoke Ring For My Halo) have blessed us with two modern classics.

Written for The Line of Best Fit

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The War on Drugs – Future Weather EP

The War on Drugs’ excellent debut album, Wagonwheel Blues (2008), was a heady helping of roots rock that drew comparisons with Dylan, Springsteen and The Band. Since then, though, their success has been arguably eclipsed by that of one of their number. Lead guitarist Kurt Vile elaborated on the dusty Americana he’d been honing on his day job with the lo-fi, well receivedChildish Prodigy (2008).

A full length follow up to Wagonwheel Blues has been mooted for some time, but the fact that a lot of the material earmarked for it has wound up on Future Weather doesn’t augur well for the future endeavours of The War on Drugs, at least not in their current guise. In Vile and the mercurial Morrissey to his Marr Adam Granduciel, they have two huge talents jostling for primacy and on Future Weather, it seems that the latter has won out. Vile is a notable absentee and the biggest compliment I can pay this EP is that his presence isn’t missed at all.

The War on Drugs are at their best when embellishing on a classic template. Case in point: first track proper and set highlight ‘Baby Missiles’. Rhythmically and stylistically, it’s archetypal Boss. When you expect to hear a harmonica, there’s a harmonica. Where you imagine there might be a “whoop”, well, that’s exactly what you find. But fed through stratums and substratums of fuzz, reverb and organ it acquires a whole new identity. Strangely enough, it sounds fresh.

Similarly, ‘Comin’ Through’ is a sublime slice of textured mid-70s blues rock, reminiscent of that era’s Fleetwood Mac. It’s a thread darned throughout the EP, particularly on Brothers. The complexity of the pieces, however, and the immersive nature of the sound, belies such comparison, careering instead toward the most introspective, stoned moments of Urban Hymns (‘The History of Plastic’). And so it continues. The War on Drugs recall at one point or another, a dozen or more artists; but none tell the full story. Just when you you’re about to pin the tail on the donkey, it kicks you in the face.

Lyrically, there are some clues to Granduciel’s frame of mind at the time of writing. There are themes of loneliness, abandonment and severance. Whether he’s metaphorically mourning the departure of twelve ships (‘Comin’ Through’), wondering where all his mates have gone (‘Brothers’), or contemplating his friend who “rides all alone” (‘Baby Missiles’), it’s hard not to leap to conclusions. If that sounds a tad grim, then forgive me; for the record is anything but. Future Weather is one to get lost in and at times, it’s entirely joyous.

So used, as we are, to being pummeled with outtake, cover version and bootleg filled EPs, the expectancy has been substantially lowered. It’s rare to hear one as fully formed as Future Weather. Sure, they’ve used it as a platform to try new things – they are courting more experimental tangents than ever before – but they haven’t fired them all against the wall and waited to see what’s stuck. It has been arranged precisely, fluidly and coherently. I sincerely hope it isn’t, but if Future Weather is the last we hear from The War on Drugs, then it’s one hell of an epitaph.

 

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