The War On Drugs – Wagonwheel Blues Album Review

The War On Drugs – Wagonwheel Blues – Album Review

The War On Drugs: Wagonwheel Blues
The War On Drugs: Wagonwheel Blues

Released in 2008, The War On Drugs‘ first album Wagonwheel Blues largely went unnoticed in circles larger than Pitchfork’s devotees. Now, as a new wave of lo-fi albums appear (Wavves, Woods and The War On Drugs’ own Kurt Vile), I was introduced to this little gem that is the perfect blend of lo-fi rock and summery, shimmery pop songs; of classic rock influences and original, honest songwriting.

Wagonwheel Blues was the product of 6-7 years of playing about with various home recordings made by the four main members: singer/songwriter Adam Granduciel, Kurt Vile, Charlie Hall and David Hartley. Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel met at a party in 2003 and began making music together. Their passion for producing music is evident on Wagonwheel Blues – they would spend 15-20 hours on recording ‘benders’, and it is evident in that their sound is meticulously chosen and consistent on the record.

Granduciel sings like toned-down Bob Dylan, quickly firing out lyrics with complex associations and imagery. The songs reek of traditional Americana and the tuneful, mellow, druggy pop that goes with that. But all the time, there is this fuzz of guitars – not thick or overbearing, but shimmering over the top of the lively drums and the distorted, reverby vocals.

The opening track ‘Arms Like Boulders’, which originally featured on the free digital download EP Barrel Of Batteries in the same year, is the best track on the album, 5 mins 20 of simple chord structures ornamented by chiming guitars and brilliant vocal delivery. It sounds, like the best Americana, like driving with the windows down.

Other tracks have the sort of unique vocal style of Animal Collective or Modest Mouse such as ‘Buenos Aries Beach’, whilst ‘There Is No Urgency’ begins in gritty feedback and nonchalant vocals before breaking into the yelped “There’s trouble down here / There’s trouble down there”.

A Needle In your Eye #16’ is loud noise-pop in the vein of No Age or The Thermals, before the expansive ‘Reverse The Charges’ and ‘Show Me The Coast’ space things out a bit.

At nine tracks long, it is a perfectly realised record, and it is a shame that it went largely unnoticed in the UK last year.

This is The War On Drugs’ MySpace.

The Albums of the Year 2008 according to…

The Albums of the Year 2008 according to… Me

Despite being much maligned, I love end of year lists, and I think we all do. Here is mine – I hope your opinions are riled and I hope you find something in it that you like – that is what I love most about this time of year…

1.    Jolie Holland – The Living and The Dead
This is the record that I most often sing along to in my car – always a good sign that it should come at the top of the list. These are country-tinged wistful collaborations with artists such as M. Ward and all the way through them Jolie Holland’s beautiful American drawl tears at the heartstrings. The folk-inspired lyrics recount love stories, regrets and heartaches.
Best songs: Mexico City, Palmyra, Love Henry
Best line “What’s that black smoke rising, Jack / is the world on fire?” (Mexico City)

James Yorkston features at No. 5 on my list
James Yorkston features at No. 5 on my list

2.    The Acorn – Glory Hope Mountain
On Glory Hope Mountain, Canadian Rolf Klausener recounts the life story of his mother in a very fine concept album.  Wonderful arrangements and a mix of ambiguous and direct lyrics makes for the best oddball indie album since Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois.
Best songs: Hold Your Breath, Flood Pt. 1 and Crooked Legs
Best line: “The sunlight scatters pennies through the leaves” (Flood Pt. 1)

3.    Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
I’m pretty sure this appeared on everyone’s list this year, and probably should for the wonderful album title and the story behind the record alone. This is a fantastic and at times heartbreaking acoustic/folk album about a lost childhood love.
Best songs: Blindsided, re: Stacks, Skinny Love
Best line: “I toured the light; / so many foreign roads / for Emma / forever ago”

4.    Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron and Fred Squire – Lost Wisdom
Mount Eerie (aka Phil Everum from the Microphones) produces some magnificent, simple, guitar and voice, poetic songs on this record – at times devastatingly bleak and at others devastatingly inspiring. The songs are moulded around the lyrics, which trace his existential dilemmas – the gorgeous harmonies ask that the album be listened to attentively, as if it were a poetry reading.
Best songs: Flaming Home, You Swan, Go On, Lost Wisdom
Best line: “The house that I walk home to is in flames / the wind is getting stronger / the emptiness shows” (Flaming House)

5.    James Yorkston – When The Haar Rolls In
I saw James Yorkston live last month, and the way he delivers his folk songs is mesmerising. His lyrical prowess makes up for his lack of originality – there is nothing hugely new to our overfilled singer-songwriter charts here. However, he is definitely at the peak of my version of that chart.
Best songs: When The Haar Rolls In, Queen of Spain, Midnight Feast
Best line: “I put you in a song / I wrapped you up with cotton wool / I cast you as an angel battling my demons. / A North London Hogmany the year my faith was shattered” (When The Haar Rolls In)

6.    Clinic – Do It!
This was the fifth LP from Clinic, and, like their long career, hardly caused any stir in the music world. It was another fantastic noise-thump-indie release from Domino with guitars going slightly out of tune, a Pavement-like attitude to singing and a general two-fingers to popular music.
Best songs: Tomorrow, The Witch, Corpus Christi

7.    The Accidental –There Were Wolves
I was surprised that this didn’t get more attention. The side project from the one half of the singer/song-writing duo in Tunng, this was a similar but less electronic release. Simple but good upbeat folk songs.
Best songs: Wolves, Jaws Of A Whale, Dream For Me
Best line: “She’s still spinning in a scarlet dress / and though the music stops / and though the echoes die” (Wolves)

8.    M83 – Saturdays=Youth
I only recently appreciated this album fully. A soaring, nostalgic prog record, it combines elements of Mew and Kate Bush, creating a perfect blend when mixed with the wistfulness for a youthful past, as its title suggests. This is a haunting record that allows you into the beautiful world of M83.
Best songs: Graveyard Girl, Too Late, Kim & Jessie

9.    Roots Manuva –Slime and Reason
Not as good as his previous albums, but with no Burial/Dizzee Rascal-like releases to give me something a bit different this year, I turned back to trusty Rodney Smith and Slime and Reason to provide some insightful/witty rhymes and decent beats.
Best songs: Let the Spirit, It’s Me Oh Lord, The Show Must Go On
Best line: “Reinventing the wheel was never part of my remit  / Hilton Smith I remix myself and come back / blacker than most would dare to be / African son now they scared of me / bought and sold how many years ago / and now they still trying to sell my arse” (It’s Me Oh Lord)

10.    Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
This is the other record on everyone’s lips this year. Taking gospel and country influences and making a closely harmonised, cold, beautiful pieces of music, Fleet Foxes captured many hearts and minds. The first half is sheer brilliance, but the standard drops rather towards the end, and at time the poor faux-poetic lyrical pretention is unbearable (Meadowlark).
Best songs: White Winter Hymnal, Your Protector, Blue Ridge Mountains

Honourable Mentions:

Bonnie Prince Billy: Lie Down In The Light
Abe Vigoda: Skeleton
Rozi Plain: Inside Over Here
TV on the Radio: Dear Science
Amadou & Mariam: Welcome to Mali
Portishead: Third

Best Albums of 2008

It always concerns me when compiling a list of favourite albums as I’m perpetually concerned that there is something out there I would include, if only I had heard it. And what about an album that slips my mind or that I listen to again and it sounds much better or worse than when I last heard it?

These dilemmas are no different to compiling a list of my favourite albums of the year. To narrow it down I have only considered new studio albums. No re-releases, compilations or DJ mix albums, however good!

So in no particular order, here goes…

1. Threatmantics – Upbeat Love
A great album full of energy, disparate noise and the odd slice of chaos; especially in the exceptional single Big Man.

2. Minilogue – Animals
Another great debut album. Two discs, one for ambient ketamine intoxicated chill out, the other more uptempo minimal techno. The latter works best for me and includes some perfect tracks such as We All, 33,000 Honeybees and Jamaica. I have also noticed Hitchhiker’s Choice is now being used for a Carphone Warehouse TV advert in the UK.

3. D_rradio – d_rradio & Remixed
Following the 2007 release of Underscore, a so-called “mini” album, 2008 saw d_rradio release their debut self-titled album. A beautiful album full of electronica bleeps and chilled calmness. Perfect for a lazy Sunday morning.

In September Distraction Records released a limited edition Remixed album, whereby each track from the debut album had been remixed by a fellow Distraction Records artist. The result was a wonderful album that stretch and built on the original d_rradio sound.

4. The Miserable Rich – Twelve Ways To Count
Yet another great debut album, and one that for the time being I see as becoming a classic. This album really struck a chord with me. Perfect timing I guess. Its melancholy is so reminiscent of Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley. I love this album.

5. Mogwai – The Hawk Is Howling
Another wonderful release from the brilliant Mogwai. The album starts off with a traditional Mogwai format. Slow, soft introductory track – the humourously titled I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead before launching into the progressive rock headspin of Batcat. Mogwai are still on the money.

6. Film Noir – I Had A very Hapy Childhud
Over the course of 2008 we received hundreds of emails from unsigned artists asking us to help promote their music. In most cases, as with signed artists, they are crap. But after listening to tracks on their MySpace page I agreed to review Film Noir’s album, I Had A Very Hapy Childhud; and it turned out to be one of the best albums of the year!

Film Noir are French but their music reminds me of the indie pop tracks of The Killers first album. Catchy indie pop songs that stick in your head, which isn’t bad for an unsigned group.

7. Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid – NYC
This is Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid’s third album. But after being disappointed with their debut I must have missed the second release altogether. I’m not sure this album is much different in format ( Hebden plays around with guitars and electronics while jazz drummer Steve Reid plays percussion) but it works for me.

This could possibly be one of those albums I referred to in my introduction as something that I might listen to again and not be in the right frame of mind. But for now it’s good to go.

8. Wild Beasts – Limbo, Panto
The wonderfully high-pitched singing style and some of the music arrangements reminds me of the late Billy Mackenzie & The Associates. But Wild Beasts are yet another example of a contemporary group making different waves in 2008; and there’s nothing better than hearing something original and unique in an ocean of blandness.

Furthermore, how can anyone not consider The Devil’s Crayon as the Single of the Year?

9. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
After enjoying their live appearance on Later With Jools Holland I eventually got round to listening to this only recently. But like many love the alt country/folk sound of this album. Like Wild Beasts and The Miserable Rich, Fleet Foxes stand out from their contemporaries. This album reminds me of the sixties harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

10. Cage The Elephant – Cage The Elephant
I was introduced to Cage The Elephant during BBC’s coverage of the Glastonbury Festival this summer. They looked as good as they sounded. Cage The Elephant are brilliant. Young wild youth displaying manic anarchist traits, full of youth, energy and spunk.

Try listening to Cage The Elephant’s Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked without nodding like one of those annoying car dogs.

More best albums of the year 2008

Caribou – Andorra
TV On The Radio – Dear Science
Yo! Majesty – Futuristically Speaking…Never Be Afraid
Modey Lemon – Season of Sweets
Laurel Collective – Feel Good Hits of a Nuclear Winter
Susumu Yokota – Love or Die
The Kills – Midnight Boom
Juliana Hatfield – How To Walk Away
Verve – Forth
The Black Angels – Directions to See a Ghost
Seasick Steve – I Started with Nothing & I Still Have Most of it Left

Animals by Minilogue wins Best CD Packaging of the Year award.

John Peel’s Festive 50 is dead – long live the Festive 50!

The festive 50 is dead … long live the festive 50!

Now I do still remember those nights with fingers paused over the cassette deck, with the tuner tuned to the dulcet tones of John Peel in the lead up to Xmas, clicking the record button on as he perambulated through his Festive 50.

We were all safe, of course, in the knowledge that each year about 25 of John Peel’s Festive 50 would include the hallmark of Mr Mark E Smith and The Fall!

But come early January, I would be able to profusely debate the highs and lows of the years sonic adventures and their placings on Mr Peel’s chart; and with the additional bonus of getting to hear some of the unexpected and come to love them too. Of course we no longer have that pleasure and somehow, those other DJ’s don’t quite have …the knack.

So, where does the ear of the music lover go to be able to argue the toss with some other fools opinion over the best of the year?

The NME Top 50? I think not.

I’m too old and I know that the Last Shadow Puppets will be there at number 1 with Crystal Castles not far behind.  You can’t go for the dance rags… , well lets face it, there isn’t enough good dance music to fill a top 10 at the moment (honestly – do you think so? send us the proof).

The Mojo Top 50?

The Mojo top 50 will have the Last Shadow Puppets at number 1 again.  And although I’m too old for the NME , I’m not THAT old that I’d want to put a Joni Mitchell reissue in the top 10.
For me, this leaves only one source for annual music quarrelling– the Rough Trade Top 50 albums of the year.

Oh I know the top 10 will be infested with neurotic white men – but have you heard the Bon Iver ‘For Emma’? It’s a heartbreaker and can we argue with Fleet foxes at number 2?

I defy anyone to dislike the Vampire Weekend album ( well, apart from my 10 year old headbanger of a son – but then he loves My Chemical Romance!)

We also have the El Guincho and Benga albums crashing the top 10, both an absolute treat and radically different to the usual guitar led business…things get yet more interesting later in the 50, with Earth and Dengue Fever popping up.

My big surprises? What on earth are Foals doing in the last 10? Surely they managed to be a significant part of the move away from the usual English guitar sound, heralding in the opportunity to play with sound and structure a little more; and of course, everyone loves the MGMT album but don’t want everyone else  to know.

I’d also be wanting some inclusions – Kills ‘Midnight Boom’, surely the best post pub hip wriggler to slam on; No Age ‘Nouns’? No Deerhunter ‘Microcastles’?

The Rough Trade 50 best albums of 2008 list acts as a point of argument, a prompt to albums you’ve forgotten came out, a chance to reconsider your previous ill founded opinion and your chance to discover musical pastures new….now, where’s my download of the Earth album?  Anything called  ‘The Bees Made Honey in the Lions Skull’ has just got to be worth a listen or two……

Here’s my Top 10 Best Albums of the Year 2008

Bon Iver ‘For Emma’
Foals ‘Antidotes’
Flying Lotus ‘Los Angeles’
The Kills ‘Midnight Boom’
El Benga ‘Diary of an Afro Warrior’
White Denim ’ Workout Holiday’
Matthew Dear ’Body Language Mix 7’
Gang Gang Dance ‘ Saint Dymphna’
No Age ‘Nouns’
Vampire Weekend ‘S/T’
That’s my best albums of 2008.  What’s yours?

Rough Trade Albums of the Year 2008