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The Spin Doctor – The War on Drugs, “Slave Ambient”

Posted: 08/13/2011 9:47 am

The War on Drugs – “Slave Ambient” (Secretly Canadian)

3.6 out of 5

Songwriting relationships are no different from any other relationship; they are formed with the assumption that their combined strengths and weaknesses will create a greater, more cohesive whole. Thus, it goes without saying, that when one partner begins to outshine the other, internal strife may occur, and break-ups might follow. This dynamic makes Philadelphia-based band The War on Drugs an intriguing case study.

Formed in 2005, the band was founded by principal songwriters Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile. After self-releasing a demo EP, appropriately titled Demo EP, they were signed to Secretly Canadian, who released the band’s 2007 Barrel of Batteries EP as well as their 2008 debut LP, Wagonwheel Blues. While Wagonwheel Blues was an impressively cohesive debut, internally the band was experiencing some significant growing pains. Vile’s solo material began to grow in popularity and resulted in his leaving the band and signing with Matador Records in 2009. When drummer/organist Charlie Hall and drummer Kyle Lloyd departed soon after, Granduciel and bassist Dave Hartley were left to pick up the pieces. Yet, while many might have believed that Vile was the creative force behind the band, Granduciel has proven otherwise. Maintaining Wagonwheel Blues’ classic rock leanings while replacing its lo-fi tape hiss with glossier production, organ drones, saxophone and stronger shoegaze influences, Slave Ambient is an impressive step forward for a band that, by all accounts, imploded.

There are a variety of genres that might explain The War on Drugs’ unique sound, yet “Dylan-gaze” or “Springsteen-sheen” might be the most apt. As Granduciel makes no attempt to deny these influences, I may as well be frank: his voice sounds remarkably like Bob Dylan. In case you thought it’s some sort of studio trickery, it’s not. I had the opportunity to catch the band earlier this year when they opened for Destroyer and, from the first note, Granduciel was a dead-ringer for late 60’s Dylan, albeit an incarnation of him drowned in digital reverb and early Sonic Youth. “Been a soldier from the start, been released and blown apart. I’ve been inside the only stone that’s been raging,” sings Granduciel on album opener “Best Night”. The track has a wonderfully worn, sunburst sheen. Full of organ flourishes, acoustic guitar, some fantastic electric guitar leads and even faint brass, “Best Night” takes its sweet time in unfolding before drifting off into the distance around the five and a half minute mark. Minus the religious iconography, there are more than a few similarities between the arrangement on “Best Night” and Dylan’s “Precious Angel”. Most notably, Granduciel has some impressive guitar leads, reminiscent of Mark Knopfler’s playing on Dylan’s “Precious Angel”. “Brothers” paradoxically turns up the shoegaze dial and yet somehow has the most distinct Dylan vocal on the record. Here Granduciel really exaggerates eeeeeach and eeeeeevery vooooowel: “Looking out from somewhere, I’ve been thinking, I’ve been rolling past the seas. Wondering where my friends are going, and wondering why they didn’t take me.”

The War on Drugs doesn’t stop at Dylan. Elsewhere, the arrangements are uncannily Springsteen-esque. This is most apparent on the marching “Baby Missiles”, where E-Street synth swirls, a driving drum measure and the Boss’ vocal pacing play like an early E-Street demo right down to Granduciel’s harmonica solo and Springsteen’s trademark “woo, woos” lifted from Born in the U.S.A.’s “I’m on Fire”.

Slave Ambient contains four instrumental interludes, and though the effect was well utilized on Wagonwheel Blues, here, the results are mixed. The synth drones, saxophone and ambient textures on “The Animator” act as the perfect precursor to stand-out “Come to the City”. The former bleeds into the latter, bringing a sense of urgency to Granduciel’s vocals and the building percussion. Elsewhere however, the interludes present as unnecessary baggage and disrupt the flow of the record (there’s no reason “Original Slave” needed to be crammed between “Baby Missiles” and the fantastic album closer “Black Water Falls”).

While the aforementioned tracks present a unique modern twist on shoegaze, Americana and classic rock, at 12 tracks and almost 47 minutes, the saturated production and constant synth/organ droning results in a sameness that is ultimately Slave Ambient’s undoing. While Slave Ambient is undoubtedly a better record than its predecessor, the more stripped approach of Wagonwheel Blues allowed for greater variance and more room for Granduciel to breathe. That said, the mere release of this record feels like an achievement and as a result of the significant line-up change, should by all intents and purposes be considered a debut rather than a sophomore release. That being the case, I’m willing to cut Granduciel some slack; he’s clearly directing the ship in an interesting direction.

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The Spin Doctor – Washed Out, “Within and Without”

Posted: 07/16/2011 3:46 am

Washed Out – “Within and Without” (Sub Pop/Weird World)

3.1 out of 5

We can blame the blogosphere for the unfortunate coining of the musical genre known as “chillwave”, or, depending on whom you talk to, “glo-fi”. Once upon a time, musical movements developed organically in one particular geographical location. Today, the Internet has enabled online bloggers to take bands from all over the world with a few commonalities in tone or style and stack them in a neat, orderly pile. Yet, interestingly, as quickly as bloggers and music critics alike were willing to throw lo-fi, 80’s electro-pop under the aforementioned umbrella term, there are already signs of the genre (if a genre is indeed what it is) reaching a saturation point. The less-than-impressive debut release by Com Truise and sophomore release by Memory Tapes, coupled with Toro Y Moi’s move away from the genre, suggests things might fall apart as quickly as they’ve come together. Which brings us to Atlanta, Georgia based producer Ernest Greene, better known as Washed Out. Following a successful run of EP’s, most notably 2009’s Life of Leisure, Greene was picked up by Sub Pop Records who have released his debut LP Within and Without. Within and Without suggests that Greene, for better or worse, and perhaps even inadvertently (Greene himself has suggested his recording techniques are, if anything, naïvely oblivious of his contemporaries) has become the flag bearer for the movement. Combining a variety of loops, filtered vocals and lo-fi 80’s synth-pop production, Within and Without is a decent electronic dance EP posing as an electro-pop LP.

There’s no denying that Greene has some formidable production chops. Album opener “Eyes Without” sounds pleasant enough. With its wall of synths and huge sounding tom-toms the track floats along quite nicely. In fact, the majority of the record does. “Amor Fati” has a rather infectious Caribbean-infused synth groove and bass line, while “Far Away” has some well-utilized xylophone and string arrangements. The problem is that all of the tracks here are approximately the same tempo, and similarly utilize those lush synth washes. By the record’s mid-point, it’s difficult to distinguish one track from another, and Greene’s vocals, which could just as easily be replaced with another synth, only make matters worse. Greene’s use of hazy vocals buried deep in the mix have been described as “atmospheric”, and “grainy”, yet when listening to the record, such adjectives play as doublespeak for more appropriate ones, like: “lazy” and “vapid”.

When Greene’s pop aspirations take a back seat and he focuses on the electronic dance elements that run throughout this record in spades, things start to work. On “Before”, a synth loop blends with synth washes, xylophone and a clever vocal loop. While on “Soft” the marching percussion fuses perfectly with the synth washes thrown over-top. Greene’s vocals on these tracks are either looped or pushed so far back in the mix that they act as another instrument rather than some half-assed attempt to sing, as is the case on most of the material here. Shoegaze built an entire genre around this technique: bury the vocals deep enough until they function as melodic counterpoint to the instrumentation; nothing more, nothing less.

Despite much of the buzz around this LP, there’s an absence of clear progression from Greene’s 2009 EP’s Life of Leisure and High Times. Undoubtedly, the production sounds fuller and brighter, which is somewhat ironic considering the genre; however, the integration of additional live instrumentation is largely wasted by murky vocals and an overdose of sameness running cover to cover. It’s as if Greene took Life of Leisure, gussied up the production and about doubled its length. Within and Without is a pleasant enough sounding record that will play as excellent background music for your next bbq. With all of the fuss surrounding the release however, I expected something a little more involving.

- Ewan Christie

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The Spin Doctor – Wye Oak, Civilian

Posted: 03/11/2011 9:34 am

Wye Oak – “Civilian” (Merge Records)

4.3 out of 5

Wye Oak’s Civilian conjures the sort of adjectives music reviewers love to employ: lush, majestic, and grandiose, just to name a few. What makes Wye Oak such a compelling act is that those adjectives are compulsorily juxtaposed with: noisy, jarring, and Crazy Horse. Granted, Crazy Horse isn’t an adjective but we’ll get to that.

Named after Maryland’s former state tree, Baltimore’s Wye Oak is vocalist/guitarist, Jenn Wasner and multi-instrumentalist, Andy Stack. Following the promise of their 2007 self-released debut, If Children, they signed with Merge Records who re-released the album in 2008. Unfortunately their follow-up, 2009’s The Knot, failed to build-on the beautiful folk/rock, shoegaze-like dreamscapes their debut so effectively utilized. Although the tracks were ambitiously larger in scope (and certainly louder), it was at the expense of some of the subtleties that made If Children so appealing. Civilian, however, gets the balance just right.

Speaking of balance, this is the first record where the band has handed mixing duties over to someone else; hiring John Congleton who has worked with such notable acts as Modest Mouse, St. Vincent and Okkervil River. In a recent interview, Jenn Wasner called passing the reins to Congleton, “A leap of faith”, and from the opening track onward, it’s a leap that has paid-off. Despite being a duo, there’s nothing small about Wye Oak (that was a little arborist pun). During their live shows, for example, while Wasner lays out vocals and guitar, Andy Stack sings background vocals, plays drums with one hand and his feet, and uses his other hand to play keyboards. Some may call this multi-tasking; I call it being a superhero. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on and, by bringing the percussion up in the mix as well as fleshing-out some of the mid range guitar work, Congleton has helped Wye Oak realize a fantastic sound.

Album opener “Two Small Deaths” is a beautiful blend of synth washes, hi-hat, layered guitars and Wasner’s smoky, mid-range vocals. The track picks-up much where Beach House’s Teen Dream left off. The same can be said for the “The Alter”, with its mid-tempo rhythm and simple, yet plodding synth line. Wye Oak, however, is not Beach House, nor is it content with mimicry. In case there was any doubt, Wasner and Stack drop an anvil on your head with the third track “Holy Holy”. Opening with enough shoegaze oomph to wake-up Kevin Shields, Wasner’s distorted guitars and Stack’s mallet whacking (apparently simple drumsticks aren’t hard enough), give way to Wasner’s vocals.

That leads into the title track and album centerpiece. Sequenced in the middle of the record, “Civilian” is the meat to the rest of the record’s potatoes. The opening verse is a stunning blend of shimmering guitar, tambourine/kick drum and organ. By the third verse the track explodes into a wall of sound courtesy of Stack’s mallets. Just when you think the duo can’t squeeze any further noise out of the mix, the coda arrives and somewhere, somehow Neil Young & Crazy Horse are green with envy.

Wye Oak wisely strip things back in the latter half of the record but not too much. “We Were Wealth” opens with one of the prettiest melodies on the record, possessing an almost ghostly quality. It’s here that Wye Oak’s folk influences really show. Reminiscent of British folk hero Sandy Denny, Wasner’s vocals fill more space in the mix than most vocalists could ever hope for, while the track pushes to a dazzling climax.

Wasner and Stack deserve credit for the sheer ambition of Civilian. The two possess more than enough musical talent to record an endless number of accessible, dreamy pop tracks and yet they have opted for the road less traveled, interspersing beauty with clattering shoegaze and noise rock. This no doubt will compromise their ability to reach a broader audience, however it is a true credit to their dedication to making music that isn’t readily digestible but always gets under your skin. You may not be able to stomach all of Civilian in a single sitting, but rest assured it’s worth the effort.

- Ewan Christie

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