Thursday, September 4, 2008

Wagonwheel Blues - The War On Drugs

Wagonwheel Blues

The War on Drugs
Secretly Canadian Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

Breaking in a fanbase for a band is the equivalent of finding a female demographic if you've just opened a club downtown. Riches, notoriety and all other successes will come along once you've attained it, but for those who don't: back to the employment pages. Perhaps the greatest gamble The War On Drugs deals in on is their name, one that has certainly impeded, even in the least, their indie breakthrough. Example A is myself, who thankfully eyed their song titles before the band name. Had I been less curious or more attentive, I have faith that I would've missed out on Wagonwheel Blues entirely. Luckily, The War On Drugs seem to subconsciously counter any distasteful first impression with lead track 'Arms Like Boulders', an attention-grabber of the first order that opens with electric guitars and percussion tripping over itself, then ironed out by a wailing harmonica. The first time you hear Adam Granduciel spouting phrases between harmonica-bursts, all that'll register is Bob Dylan. That's OK - don't fight it; the Philadelphia five-piece apparently bonded over the father of folk's work, and by the time 'Taking the Farm', a chugging slice of Springsteen Americana, digs in, those Dylan-isms will feel assuredly unforced and at home here. Yes, this is a do-or-die first listen; the kind of record that opens so promisingly, that when previewing each following song, you're terrified it's about to run out of gas. This review is here to assure you that it won't.

If I was into genre labels as vigorously as professional critics tend to be, I'd make a solid case for Wagonwheel Blues to be crowned a cornerstone of shoegaze-folk. At first listen, it sounds like an old folk album put through the washer, with any thin acoustics covered in layers of ambient feedback. Such startling production techniques are both part of the record's initial novelty and its subsequent brilliance; these digital waves soothe us on 'There Is No Urgency' or the ruminating 'Reverse the Charges' but spike suddenly in the ringing rock-out of 'Show Me The Coast'. Because these shimmering waves (there's really no other word for them) give depth to all nine songs, it also provides Wagonwheel Blues with a cohesive cinematic quality; a blurred genre border where rock purists can shake hands with drone or prog enthusiasts. This widescreen treatment is fortified by two instrumentals - one of which, 'Coast Reprise', actually reprises a song that appears later in the album - that encapsulate the War On Drugs' love of warm keyboards and distorted noise.

Although this record begs the mention of Dylan, Springsteen, or even Wilco, it deserves its own spotlight; one untouched by paint-by-number comparisons. Wagonwheel Blues is more than folk or rock; it's a hybrid too stunningly honest in its skin, and too convincing to be a flavour of the month. This is the soundtrack to weekday afternoons of watching summer storms march over the land you call home, or tackling a highway without purpose or direction. This record is the soundtrack of witnessing something bigger than you can fully understand, and finding the beauty in it. Remind me to never judge a band by its name again...

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