Richard Nixon reportedly brought the phrase “the war on drugs” to national prominence when he used it in the summer of 1971. The War on Drugs — the band, that is — maintains an important spiritual connection to musical trends that were in full bloom when Tricky Dick uttered that seminal phrase. On “Slave Ambient,” the Philadelphia group deploys loads of reverb, layers of electric guitar and minor-key melodies derived from years of DIY musicians, but it never quite scrubs out the sensation that it is standing in the Classic Rock Garden of Eden. It makes for a wonderful dichotomy.
Founded by Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile in 2005, the War on Drugs shares sonic turf with the latter’s buzzed-on solo records, which overflow with time-warped compositions that somehow hook up Bob Seger and Akron/Family. Vile mainly concentrates on his solo career these days, so Granduciel is front and center on “Ambient.” His husky vocals are the center of pulsing songs such as “Baby Missiles,” where keyboards and guitars scrabble for air and you feel “the distant hands of the common touch.” That snatch of lyric works well as a signifier of the record’s intentions. Familiar chord changes and well-worn hooks abound, but the band members work hard to distance themselves from them.
Which means key tracks “Brothers,” “Black Water Falls” and “Come to the City” hit home like Tom Petty and Bob Dylan jamming with Lee Ranaldo at Neil Young’s place on the beach. “I thought I had him by the hand / but I had him by the glove,” Granduciel sings on the superb “I Was There,” a lazy piano riff uncurling behind him. It’s the kind of song you want along on a late-night interstate drive. And like the best moments on “Slave Ambient,” it manages to capture a sense of past and future but owe nothing to either. You might call those best moments timeless.
— Patrick Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Baby Missles,” “I Was There,” “Brothers”
“I’m Back! Family & Friends”
It was supposed to be a comeback of sorts, this strange, disjointed album, Sly Stone’s first release of new material since 1982. “I’m Back! Family & Friends”is part star-studded collaborations disc meant to evoke Carlos Santana’s career-reinvigorating “Supernatural,” part remix disc and part redone greatest hits, with a few new tracks tacked on near the end.
Stone is one of pop’s most famous recluses, long dogged by rumors of drug abuse and strange behavior. “I’m Back!” isn’t a return to his classic late-’60s heights, or even much of a return at all: Stone seems more like a visitor to these tracks, like somebody assembled them and he showed up sometimes. He sounds tired.
“I’m Back” feels both abbreviated and padded: There are several unreleased songs, including a lovely “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” but most of the disc is given over to Stone’s hits, represented in two versions: A new version redone, though not usually substantially altered, with help from a guest star (Jeff Beck ably assists on “[I Want to Take You] Higher,” and Heart’s Ann Wilson sounds just right singing backup on a new version of “Everyday People”); and a remixed version.
There are entirely credible dance mixes of “Family Affair” (turned into a dubstep jam) and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” (now an electro club banger). It may seem sacrilegious, this bending and mutilating of Stone’s hits, but Stone himself appears to have given up on these songs long ago, and after years of overuse in car commercials and karaoke bars, these songs no longer feel untouchable, they just feel old.
— Allison Stewart
Recommended Track: “Everyday People”
Andy Butler was up against it from the start with the second Hercules and Love Affair album. The songwriter/producer/talent-wrangler scored universal praise for the group’s self-titled debut, a luxurious collection of disco songs that pulsed with long-ago New York City warehouse cool. As sumptuous and stately as Butler’s beats were, the vocal contributions of Antony Hegarty(he appeared on five songs) stole the show, his wounded wail adding an emotional resonance not often found in dance music.
“Blue Songs” is in many ways a second debut for H&LA. Hegarty is absent, as is Nomi Ruiz, another singer who offered memorable vocal turns on the debut. Butler recruited a stable of vocalists to pick up the slack and has also expanded H&LA’s sonic template — both with mixed results. He still crafts elegant songs that can light up a dance floor, with lead tracks “Painted Eyes” and “My House” being prime examples. Shaun Wright’s forceful vocals on the latter help turn it into a diva house anthem. But then there’s “Step Up,” featuring Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, which works only slightly better than your standard rocker-plus-producer collaboration, and “Boy Blue,” an odd detour that tries to combine house with chamber-folk with predictably awkward results. For the most part, however, Butler’s ear serves him well. If it doesn’t reach the heights of H&LA’s debut, “Blue Songs” proves Butler’s musical vision makes it worth tracking the group’s cast of rotating characters.
Since the album was released in January in Britain, the new U.S. edition features a bonus disc to entice listeners who have surely already had a listen. Four remixes of “My House” and three of “Painted Eyes” by the likes of In Flagranti, Tensnake and Derrick Carter would make fine 12-inch B-sides but are hardly essential. Of the three extra tracks, the highlight is a cover of the xx’s “Shelter,” which transforms the song from sultry to slinky without losing the break-of-dawn mood.
— David Malitz
Recommended Tracks: “Painted Eyes,” “My House,” “Shelter”