My policy towards music tends to fly by the motto of “listen first, ask questions later”. Before all the pitches and “sounds like” comparisons reach my eyes, my ears almost always get the first taste and judge for themselves. It has certainly made for some interesting musical moments, but one of the more twisted pleasures I get out of blind listening is when an artist or band finds a way to genuinely surprise me. I’ve heard The War on Drugs before, but not since giving a cursory listen to their 2008 label debut “Wagonwheel Blues”. They’ve been pulling in a fair amount of hype for their sophmore effort “Slave Ambient” though, so having completely forgotten why I didn’t pay them more attention the first time around, I jumped into the record without a second thought or a second of research.
Track 2 on “Slave Ambient” is “Brothers”. My memory wiped of what this band is all about and who their members are, my immediate thought was that the track sounded exactly like Kurt Vile. From the acoustic guitars through the vocals, the song very much seemed like a missing track off Vile’s latest record “Smoke Ring For My Halo”. It was after that first time through the record that I scanned the text surrounding the band, only to discover that Vile was in fact a founding member of The War on Drugs, leaving to pursue his solo career back in 2008. In essence then, he was one of the people that helped shape the band’s sound in the early days, and his presence is still felt even today. It doesn’t help that frontman Adam Granduciel sounds a bit like Vile too. Considering the praise Vile has been getting these last couple years for his music, the similarities might not be a bad thing.
Despite resembling Kurt Vile on a couple tracks, that’s not nearly the full scope of The War on Drugs’ sound. Unlike Vile’s often hushed and intimate melodies, The War on Drugs will occasionally break out a propulsive, stadium-sized song that bears closer cousins to Arcade Fire than anything else. Grandiosity comes in the form of “Your Love Is Calling My Name”, centerpiece “Come to the City” and “Baby Missiles”. Not only are these tracks massive in scope, but they’re quite catchy too. Where much of the record merely drifts in slow-moving ambience (as the title suggests), those more expansive bits help to break free of what might otherwise be complacent monotony. Yet just because a song has a brisk pace and a widescreen melody doesn’t automatically make it great or better than some of the quieter stuff. The band shows so much restraint across the entirety of “Slave Ambient” that they aren’t quite able to break free of that even when they do go big. That is to say they could have and probably should have tried to go even bigger. As a result most of the more thrilling moments on the album are offset with this air of disappointment at the thought of what might have been.
The slower, more drifting songs typically work well, particularly in establishing an overall mood. A couple instrumentals in the form of the brief “Come For It” and “Original Slave” only add to the drifting elements, though it is questionable as to whether they’re needed at all. Ultimately when “Slave Ambient” finishes, you’re left with this general ambivalence towards it. This isn’t a record that’s difficult to like, but it’s also somewhat easy to forget. You can let yourself get lost in the ether and remain blissfully unaware of when one song ends and another begins. Outside of the more expansive and brass ring-reaching moments, there’s not a ton to grab and hold your attention. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it serves the experience. Unless you’ve got your highlights clearly marked though, don’t start this record unless you plan to finish it. Tentpole songs aside, keeping everything bunched together as one 45 minute piece will help you to get the most out of it and provide you with a much greater appreciation for the band as a whole. Kurt Vile or no Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs are on the up-and-up. They may not strike the emotional highs that Vile has achieved on his last record, but they’re more ambitious when it comes to their sound so it kind of balances out. Still, this band has some improving left to do. Unlike their last album though, I think I’ll remember “Slave Ambient”, so at least next time I won’t have to re-educate myself on these guys for a third time.