Review of the War on Drugs' Debut "Wagonwheel Blues"

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The War On Drugs

If "I'm on Fire" is your favorite Bruce Springsteen song, if you have a thing for singers who turn a single syllable into a vocal contortion and your preferred spot to listen to music is behind the steering wheel on a dark interstate, then this debut by Philadelphia's the War on Drugs might be your favorite album of the year.

Adam Granduciel, the band's one constant member, manages to use the Boss and Bob Dylan as cornerstones without sounding like the hordes of songwriters who do the same. He's created his own niche genre -- call it "busted Americana" -- that's filled with staticky sounds shooting in from all directions but is still steeped in the classic troubadour style of a guy and his guitar. All that fuzz gives the songs a cloudy feel, which is appropriate for Granduciel's outlook: neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but somewhere in between. His lyrics are more cryptic than confessional, but the frequent mentions of coasts and roads suggests he's searching for something.

Opener "Arms Like Boulders" announces itself with a blast of distorted harmonica before settling into a rollicking folk-rocker driven by Granduciel's pinched vocals and sonic washes. Even better is "Taking the Farm," which borrows an opening from Don Henley, of all people, but sounds more like a reimagining of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" for an era of cut-and-paste, home-studio recording. Even when it's just Granduciel and his guitar, as on "Barrel of Batteries," his voice and melodies remain entrancing. He's one of the year's most exciting newcomers.

-- David Malitz

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Taking the Farm," "Arms Like Boulders," "Buenos Aires Beach"

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