The War On Drugs // Lost In The Dream
Kurt Vile and the War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel spent years playing in each others’ bands, slowly building artistic signatures that seem brotherly in their similarity to one another. Both transform heartland rock into widescreen fever dreams, loading up on guitar effects and open-ended jams. They both like to muddy their influences: FM pop riding the melodic high, ambient freakouts bubbling underneath.
The War On Drugs’ Slave Ambient upped the game considerably, a full-on album that gazes dreamily at ramblin’, stumblin’, slidin’ American lives. Whereas Vile has trunk-loads of songs at his disposal, Granduciel spent nearly four years crafting Slave Ambient from an analog trash heap, stitching all the songs together with synth washes and blasted drum loops. Vile hit his mark last year with the fantastic Wakin On A Pretty Daze, an inward record that takes comfort in both domestic bliss and the life of a working musician.
And now Granduciel, too, has turned inward. Reportedly, Lost In The Dream was just as exhaustingly crafted as Slave Ambient—Granduciel has revealed that he suffered from a mental breakdown after personal problems, and he worked endlessly to finish the record. He’s a tinkerer, as obsessed with the infinite permutations of a guitar lick as with the songwriting itself. Not surprisingly, LITD is perfectly recorded, full of rich tones and a sonic heaviness that’s miles from previous War On Drugs releases. This is an album that sounds great on headphones, but it’s best served at high volume through a decent pair of speakers, especially if those speakers are zooming down the highway.
Rock history is littered with audiophile geniuses that have nothing to say. Granduciel has everything to say, turning LITD into a beautifully open-hearted statement of purpose. He once sang in a Dylan-esque sneer, but here his voice is clear and full, wringing a calm sadness that sits alongside the general ennui that clouds War On Drugs’ discography. The tiny details add up: his soulful, heartbreaking higher register on “Suffering;” the understated “I’m a bit run down here at the moment” on “Eyes To The Wind;” the harmony vocals that push “Burning” over the edge; the utter, sincere joy captured by a “whoo!” and a drumroll a minute and forty-eight seconds into “Red Eyes.”
With a few exceptions, Granduciel essentially keeps re-writing the same two-chord song over and over again, but the formula hardly wears thin. He’s bearing down on infinity; eyes are set to the wind, horizons are scanned, there’s an ocean in between the waves. The songs all slowly burn, coming into focus before receding into the mist again. Just when you think a guitar-based band couldn’t find a new way forward, the War On Drugs turn the six-string into a bucket of Technicolor paint. Granduciel’s solo on “Suffering” is raw and perfectly imperfect, coughing through a Leslie speaker and matching the melancholic tone note-for-note. Granduciel is the ringleader—other band members laid down their tracks as overdubs over his demos—yet LITD breathes with life, sounding both meticulously crafted and freeform at the same time. Synthesizers coat the record front to back, but saxophone and pedal steel peek through the haze. It’s the most organic synthetic record you’ll probably ever hear this side of Brian Eno.
LITD is Americana that’s half-remembered, stuck somewhere between the halcyon past and a much grayer future. It’s Granduciel’s big question mark—he’s admitted his headspace is stuck between the endless touring of his younger days and future responsibilities, like settling down and starting a family. In every murky corner, self-doubt creeps up, haunting the edges like that solitary, vaguely creepy album cover. Yet somehow Granduciel sounds strangely at peace. All the hours and frayed nerves, washed away under an ocean of sound.
Angel Olsen // Burn Your Fire For No Witness
"The Leap:" an artist jumps from being just interesting to essential. Angel Olsen has made the leap. Burn Your Fire For No Witness demands to be heard on its own terms. Her unflagging intensity renders the record hot to the touch; even the seven-minute solo dirge “White Heat” (fitting name) is hypnotic and singular.
With Olsen backed up by a muscular band, she’s given a sturdy foundation to play with dynamics. “Hi-Five” and “Lights Out” bob and weave around soft and loud passages, building their power through repetition and subtle instrumental interplay. Olsen’s voice is the best instrument on display, capable of sounding alternately wounded or feral. On “Stars,” she focuses her withering gaze outward: “I think you like to see me lose my mind.” The chorus hits even harder, with Olsen wishing she had “the voice of everything / To scream the animals, to scream the earth / To scream the stars out of the universe.” It’s powerful, and yet utterly powerless.
I recently interviewed Olsen for my radio gig, and she told me that the Clean was a big touchstone when making the record, which makes sense. The New Zealand band carved out their own warped-pop sound with simple, do-it-yourself ingredients, and Olsen thrillingly follows that example. Her boldness is exciting and intoxicating; bigger things may come, but for now, we’re left with an instant-classic.
Sun Kil Moon // Benji
The repeated trash fires. The KFC dinner at an uncle’s funeral. Jimmy Page standing tall with his Les Paul, but finding love in "The Rain Song." Finding love (and lust) in Animals and old boxing matches on TV. The pettiness of an old friendship gone frosty; thinking about it while surrounded by sports bar shit. A simple mental prayer for Newtown. The simplicity of “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love.” Playing Scrabble to the chimes of the grandfather clock. Time marching forward and backward and sideways. A constellation of emotion in four words: "I love my dad." The fact that that phrase is surrounded by the cheesiest backup singers this side of your local Steely Dan cover band, bopping along like the Platonic ideal of “dad rock”—and one more shot at Nels Cline.
All these details add up to a masterpiece.
Bobby Charles // Bobby Charles
"We’re gonna bring out another friend of ours now, to do this tune with Mac," drawled the Band’s Robbie Robertson in The Last Waltz. “Bobby Charles—great—great, great songwriter.” It’s almost as if Robertson was preempting the inevitable “who?” that floats above the crowd in the Band’s live swan song. Charles certainly wasn’t—and still isn’t—a household name, but there he is, sharing a bill with Dylan, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell, and dueting with Dr. John and Levon Helm on a boozy version of “Down South In New Orleans.” “He wrote ‘See You Later Alligator,’” Robertson meekly suggests, but that rudimentary hit for Bill Haley only hints at Charles’s skill.
Born Robert Charles Guidry in Abbeville, Louisiana, Charles synthesized the lonesome holler of Hank Williams with the stride piano of Fats Domino, let it stew in the Southern humidity, and out came swamp pop. It’s one of the stranger strains of American roots music, more dependent on vibe and voodoo than the energized rock-and-roll or R&B of the same era. Nevertheless, it’s electrifying, and the genre produced such masterpieces as Phil Phillips’ "Sea of Love," Barbara Lynn’s "You’ll Lose A Good Thing," and Domino’s "Walking To New Orleans" (also penned by Charles).
In 1972, Charles finally struck out on his own as a singer and bandleader. His self-titled debut reads as a murderer’s-row of talent: produced by the Band’s Rick Danko, it features Danko and his Band-mates, plus Dr. John, Neil Young’s slide maestro Ben Keith, and Dylan’s sideman Bob Neuwirth, among others. The outfit affords Charles the necessary breathing room to let his unique style truly shine. Simple ingredients: molasses-like tempos, a funky mix, and Charles’s husky Cajun croon lend the record that sepia-toned, early-’70s richness that’s easy to get lost in. It’s also a slice of small town life, as Charles details the various oddballs you run into in his neck-of-the-swamps. The record kicks off with a sizzler: “Street People” burns slow and hot, grooving hard on some genius interplay between the bass and drums while Charles sets his sights on chooglin’ through life. “The great lost Band record” is the party line, but Bobby Charles is more than that: a beautiful, subtle good time that cements Charles as a singular American voice. Light In The Attic has the reissue—get cookin’.
And now for something completely different…Evan Holm at SFMOMA.