Musicians with an identity crisis can produce astonishing, innovative works of majesty just as easily as they can cacophonous, impotent drivel. For every prime-time Prince, fearlessly smashing genres together to effortlessly create new sounds, there are thousands of lesser mortals convinced that their country-meets-drill'n'bass hybrid is the future of music.
The War on Drugs - perhaps more precisely their frontman and chief songwriter, Adam Granduciel - appear to be in the grip of some stylistic confusion on second album Slave Ambient. But it's testament to the man's songwriting smarts that the overall results are as impressive as those on this Philadelphia band's debut, 2008's excellent Wagonwheel Blues.
In a bold and brave move, this album begins with a bang, Best Night immediately satisfying. No pre-amble, no fade in; just high-tempo krautrock. There are beats, there is feedback; its droning waves of sound come across like Neu! or Spirtualized at their best, or even Primal Scream at their least commercial. An immaculately-produced country rock number channeling Tom Petty seems an unlikely bedfellow, but Brothers is next up. Granduciel sings about the fire in his heart, and while he was hardly raised on the prairie, he sounds splendidly authentic.
I Was There is similar both thematically and sonically. There is harmonica, a muffled Springsteen-aping vocal and a simple piano melody; but despite these elements it's impossible not to think of Automatic for the People-era REM (a good thing, clearly). Comfort never last for long on Slave Ambient, though. The Animator, essentially an homage to Spacemen 3's Ecstasy Symphony, turns into Come to the City. The lyrics may claim that our protagonist is "just drifting," but the song thumps like a great Chemical Brothers collaboration.
And there are further great tunes to be found. Your Love Is Calling My Name is a driving, synth-y number that recalls Arcade Fire's Keep the Car Running, while pre-release download Baby Missiles sounds like Dire Straits' Walk of Life rebooted for the 2011 post-everything crowd. It is celebratory and magnificent.
Slave Ambient as a whole may be more confused than your average reality show star at a Mensa meeting, but it's full of decent songs with a lot of heart. Give it a listen before the global economy truly collapses and you have to sell your stereo.
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On their debut, the life-affirming Wagonwheel Blues, and the follow-up EP, Future Weather, Philly s The War on Drugs seemed obsessed with disparate ideas, with building uncompromised rock monuments from pieces that may have seemed like odd pairs. Folk-rock marathons come damaged by drum machines. Electronic and instrumental reprises precede songs they ve yet to play, and Dr. Seuss becomes lyrical motivation for bold futuristic visions. Now, Granduciel has done it again, better than before: Slave Ambient is their proper second album anda brilliant 47-minute sprawl of rock n roll, conceptualized with a sense of adventure and captured with seasons of bravado.