The War on Drugs Wagonwheel Blues

[Secretly Canadian; 2008]

Styles: Druggy folk-rock, druggy rock, drugs
Others: Animal Collective (sort of), The Arcade Fire (maybe), Bob Dylan (not really)

Forget the Dylan comparisons. Partially because making them is the product of lazy idling at the fault of the critic — kind of like how every article that mentions Dr. Dog has to mention The Beatles (as if the Beatles are solely responsible for second-rate guitar solos and second-hand melodies). And partially because The War on Drugs’ lead singer Adam Granduciel’s whine + the harmonica that opens “Arms Like Boulders” does not a Zimmerman make.

But mostly, forget the Dylan comparisons because on their debut, Wagonwheel Blues, The War on Drugs are doing something far more interesting than exhuming a past persona of a walking relic; the Philadelphia quintet have taken what would be a glut of standard indie-rock songs and applied daubs of sonic smear and shine onto their phonographic lens. If Animal Collective built the smoldering passive-aggressive come-ons of Feels around cavernous voids and naturally synthetic erotica, Wagonwheel Blues gathers those elements to surround their songs, rather than serving as a nervy backdrop — the strung-out yelps and dramatic tones of “There is No Urgency” and the drone-soaked shuffle of “Show Me the Coast” certainly signal as much. Elsewhere, the shimmering ambient washes of “Coast Reprise” and “Reverse the Charges” reveal keen ears and noticeable appreciation for the eternal drift.

To make The War on Drugs sound like another bunch of half-assed self-serious sonic architects would be betraying the inimitable songwriting talent displayed on Wagonwheel Blues. “A Needle in Your Eye #16” pounds and snaps, alternately and concurrently, with a sort of immovable organ-driven force as Granduciel — in his wonderful and, yes, Dylan-esque, manner — sings about getting on a jet plane, “Just to see if I get back.” Opener “Arms Like Boulders” and minor blog hit (a phrase that still doesn’t sound right) “Taking the Farm” evoke ’70s classic rock and ’90s indie rock (respectively) with excellent results, while still lovingly languishing in their own backdrops. After all this grandeur, Wagonwheel Blues sends us off with the crackly guy-and-guitar Granduciel demo “Barrel of Batteries.” A strange way to end a record riddled with simplistic complexities, but a caring reminder that fussiness ain’t shit if the material ain’t there to hold it up.

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