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.
“Baby Missles,” “I Was There,”