Like many underground bands these days, Philadelphia's the War on Drugs seems to be taking pieces of classic rock history, running them through the indie rock of the '80s and presenting them as fresh, almost-outsider sounds for the '00s. Though Bob Dylan is the obvious reference point and The Band and much of '70s trad rock seems to be on the group's iPod, it's a more recent sound that the War on Drugs recalls for me. The band seems to be playing something Animal Collective might try if that group wanted to be easier to grasp, or something that might fall into freak-folk territory, but not quite.
"Wagonwheel Blues" doesn't start out that way, though. "Arms Like Boulders" is dripping in Dylanness, particularly in Adam Granduciel's vocals and the carnival feel of the music. The percussion throughout the album is played as a march -- at varying speeds -- and here it is somewhat slow but playful. The group is multi-instrumentalists Granduciel and Kurt Vile with a little bit of help here and there, and that multi-instrument mentality is immediately noticeable, as varied instruments swirl about to create a unified, ambient front. "Arms Like Boulders" rolls along past five minutes without venturing outside of one structure, but it never gets boring. The layers of sounds color this a folk-rock song with pop sensibility. Rarely does any one instrument stand out on this album, and when one does take off, like some of the squealing guitar riffs on the second song, "Taking the Farm," it is lowered in the mix. "Taking the Farm," like most of the songs found here, has a steady sound that doesn't change much but seems to have its own momentum, like some sort of perpetual motion music. That Animal Collective sound is strong here -- and through most of the rest of the album -- most noticeable in the ambience of the mellow noise but also in the vocals, like Dylan echoing through a tin can.
"Buenos Aires Beach" has more of a freak-folk sound thanks to a heavier reliance on acoustic guitars and more vocal tics. That vibe is a holdover from the previous song, "Coast Reprise," an instrumental that reprises a song that doesn't appear until later on the album. Guitars, organ and synthesizer cascade all about the record in the fashion of dream pop or shoegaze, but the music stays true to deeper roots, never letting its more recent reference points dominate the sound. On "There Is No Urgency" that cascading, swirling effect is put in the spotlight, for once stepping up from the background to start the song before the drums kick in and steady, soft acoustic strumming takes the driver's seat and the song takes somewhat of a form. That atmosphere has Brian Eno's fingerprints all over it.
"A Needle in Your Eye #16" is the standout track here. At once it is even more odd than most of the music on the album, particularly for the Middle Eastern feel, but at the same time it is more infectious than anything that preceded it. The organ takes a bigger role, and the drumming is steady foot-tapping stuff. The second instrumental segue, "Reverse the Charges," stays in the atmospheric territory, never breaking into a jam the way "Coast Reprise" did earlier, but as such "Reverse the Charges" is a perfect lead in to "Show Me the Coast," which picks up on the acoustic jam of "Reprise" and extends it into the fully realized song it should be. Unfortunately, at 10 minutes in length, this is the track where that self-contained momentum does seem to carry on too long, taking going nowhere too far. Dylanesque words and inflection are a little too obvious here, as well. The album closes with a song that retreats from any Animal Collective or freak-folk comparisons. "Barrel of Batteries" is simple and sparse, like a bedroom recording. It's just vocals and acoustic guitar and little else. Just a rootsy, lo-fi folk jam, it gives your brain a cool-down period after all of those swirling layers. Fans of Dylan or The Band or The Boss may consider "Wagonwheel Blues" noise pollution, while fans of modern, beautiful noise might consider it watered down, but the genius is in bringing both those sides together to create some intriguing and catchy moments that stick with you.