Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The War on Drugs / Califone - Live 2014.09.28 Stubb's, Austin, Texas

The War on Drugs have been on my radar for a while, especially since their latest album, Lost in the Dream, has gotten very good reviews. I had hoped to see them at Austin Psych Fest but didn't end up going the day they played. I don't know their music all that well, but on a whim I decided to give the show a chance.

Artist: The War on Drugs
Venue: Stubb's (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 28 September 2014
Opening Act: Califone

Califone have also been on the periphery of my awareness, but my impression was never anything special. Still, I know they are well regarded in some sectors and I didn't want to miss their set. They came out sooner than I expected, so I'm glad that I was early.

Most of their songs had a standard indie rock vibe, which is to say they were just fine, but not particularly exceptional. The one odd feature was the very prominent usage of slides – at least half of the songs featured at least one of the guitarists using one. It sounded good in some songs, but in others, it was just another sonic cliché: the sound of an open-tuned guitar sliding up the neck to the next chord. At any rate, I actually kind of liked the country inflection that it often lent. One song even had a distinctive bluesy feel.

Their lead singer was rather nondescript and unemotive, especially compared to the lead guitarist/ harmony vocalist, who seemed to have a more expressive and compelling voice. I understand that the band is mostly the solo project of the lead singer, and his songwriting talent is the core of the music, but the vocals gave the music a restrained feeling that was only reinforced by the drawling, spaced out instrumentation.

Several songs relied on drones and/or feedback, and while I think those segments were meant as background or foundation, sometimes they got out of control and overwhelmed the sound stage. It made me wonder if it was intentional or not, which is probably not a good thing.

The War on Drugs is also often considered merely a vehicle for the primary songwriting member, Adam Granduciel. However, bassist Dave Hartley has been in the group for almost a decade, and keyboardist/guitarist Robbie Bennett has been around for several years. (This is also where I need to make the requisite statement that Kurt Vile was a founding member and songwriting collaborator for several years.) A drummer, a saxophonist/keyboardist, and yet another keyboardist rounded out the live lineup. They seemed like a motley crew, ranging from Hartley's cool, composed, David J-style white suitcoat (over an Austin City Limits t-shirt), to Bennett's New Traditionalist-era Devo look (but with a lumberjack-looking shirt), to the drummer's 70s polka dot shirt, to the extra keyboardist's folky farmer look. Actually, Granduciel looked the plainest of the bunch.

However, despite the number of musicians, most of the guitars, keyboards, and brass were lost in the mix. That isn't to say they contributed nothing, but I could rarely pick out individual instruments other than the bass, drums, and Granduciel's vocals and guitar. Even the saxophone was often indistinguishable from the keyboards. Oddly, several songs had programmed drum samples despite that the drummer was barely doing anything. He worked with a reduced set, and despite his enthusiasm, he stuck to rather simplistic beats. Actually, most of the backing musicians didn't seem to be doing anything particularly complicated, but it was clear that their combined work laid down a solid layer for Granduciel to work on top of.

Granduciel was the clear lead musician, and it was his vision that led the band and set the mood. He excelled at channeling his energy into his voice and guitar, often emitting endearing yelps at the end of verses. When he blasted off into an extended guitar jam, the other musicians picked up their energy level and fed back into Granduciel's playing. Their cohesiveness was impressive, even if no other individual player stood out.

I had originally hoped to write this review without invoking the name of Bob Dylan. Granduciel is a well-known acolyte and his songs suffer frequent critical comparisons to Dylan's. However, my plan was immediately challenged by the War on Drugs' choice of the Byrds' excellent cover of "My Back Pages" as entrance music, and ultimately shattered when the band started their encore with a rendition of "Tangled Up in Blue". The cover was a good performance, done mostly straight but with one of Granduciel's trademark solos at the end.

But the fact that I liked the relatively simple cover so much got me thinking. I enjoyed the show, but found myself looking for something that was absent in all the other songs. I'm no Dylan apologist, so this surprised me. The only clear difference I could find was that "Tangled" has a distinct chorus with a clear hook, a unique beat, and even a lead-up pre-chorus section. None of the War on Drugs' songs worked like that. They were all just loads of verses and guitar solos. Ironically, Dylan is famed for writing songs with countless unending verses, yet even his modestly melodic choruses add just enough of something different to keep his songs compelling and appealing.

While I like the War on Drug's enthusiastic jams and Granduciel's spirited solos, his songs get stuck at one level and never quite jump into the next. The songs have a certain amount of appeal, but they never quite live up to the promise that they will lead somewhere new and special. I want to like his songwriting, and it's easy to get drawn in, but I am left feeling like something is missing. I want him to reach into a new dimension. I think he may even get there sooner or later.

Califone: B-
The War on Drugs: B

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