27 Nov 2021

The Sampler: The War on Drugs, Courtney Barnett, Nightmares on Wax

From The Sampler, 1:30 pm on 27 November 2021

Tony Stamp explores the new album by retro-rockers The War on Drugs, a stripped back set of lockdown songs from Aussie wit Courtney Barnett, and trip-hop kingpin Nightmares on Wax's latest guest-heavy outing.

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I Don't Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs

Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs

Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs Photo: supplied

I’ve noticed a debate happening around a band called The War On Drugs. On Twitter Luke Buda of The Phoenix Foundation described them as “MOR dad rock dressed as hipster”, and while he went on to clarify he didn’t mean any disrespect, he said he was a bit mystified by the hype.

I mention this because it’s how a lot of people react to this band, myself included. Their new, fifth album is the first that’s really grabbed me, largely because they do those MOR dad rock moments so well, and without a hint of irony. 

if you’re a similar age to me, ‘Harmonia’s Dream’ might remind you of Bryan Adam’s ‘Summer of Sixty Nine’ as well. War on Drugs songs tend to start in very familiar places, but they’ll generally chart new territory in their chorus, and sometimes turn these pop-rock offerings into 6-minute-plus psych jams.

Frontman Adam Granduciel has made no secret of the influences here: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Dire Straits. You could easily guess that from listening to their albums, and as I say, I think they succeed at bottling the essence of those eighties rock moments without being too referential, or winking at the audience in the way a band like The Darkness maybe did. Instead it seems to be this desire on Granduciel’s part to enter the pantheon alongside his heroes.

And he’s succeeding: the band won the Grammy for Best Rock album in 2018, got album of the year in fifteen different publications, and won a fan in Apple’s Jimmy Iovine, a hugely influential figure in the music industry who said The War on Drugs “should be massive”.

The songs are certainly stadium-sized in scope, like the title track, built around a riff that echoes Simple Minds, and a towering, anthemic chorus.

Since the band’s last album Granduciel became a parent with actress Krysten Ritter, naming their son Bruce after, yep, The Boss. Fatherhood has infiltrated The War on Drugs lyrics, as you’d expect, Granduciel saying “nothing will put your life in perspective like having a kid”.

You can hear it on songs like ‘Old Skin’, as he reflects on his father’s life, and how he compares.

The moment when the band kicks in halfway through verse four on that track is the moment that really sold me on this album. Every time I hear it I can’t help but screw up my face appreciatively. It just hits so hard; every element is perfect; like the ghost of a thousand AM radio hits from my youth. 

Granduciel returns to parental concerns on ‘Rings Around My Father’s Eyes’, this time with soothing acoustic guitar and creeping organ.

If these songs sound meticulous, that’s down to the amount of studio time and care spent on them. The process took three years, with Granduciel and co-producer Shawn Everett remixing and re-writing every song multiple times. I’ve read reviews saying the production is key to the band’s success, citing the long list of boutique eighties gear that came into play.

But while I think all that is important, as is the Dylan-esque rasp to Granduciel’s voice, it’s his writing which deserves the kudos.

As an experiment I sent a few tracks to various friends, to see what they made of The War on Drugs. By and large, everyone brought up a vintage rock musician as a comparison, but they were all won over. Grizzled, long haired music like this could seem very out of fashion in 2021, but with songs this good, it really doesn’t matter.

Things Take Time, Take Time by Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett Photo: supplied

Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett’s debut album was called Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, a title that does a great job announcing what to expect: it’s funny, self-deprecating; a little sad.

Her work is defined by these signifiers: her wit, her guitar playing, and her deadpan singing voice, but her third album, Things Take Time, Take Time, pulls back slightly on those first two. It’s more intimate, but as personable as always.

Courtney Barnett was a firm favourite of many of my friends when I saw her play live at Laneway festival, and it was then I got the hype. She’s an incredible performer, pulling rock-star guitar moves with ease, visually magnetic in a way that’s at odds with her laidback delivery.

On this album, the backing is whittled down to a sparser palette, and the loss of volume is sometimes to the detriment of these songs. Barnett can sound a bit stranded without all those guitars clanging around her. Nonetheless, Things Take Time is full of great observational songwriting.

‘Write A List of Things to Look Forward To’ is a title that so clearly speaks to lockdown frustration that I found it quite moving. On ‘Rae Street’, she’s peering out her window in the morning and detailing the COVID-era goings on.

I like the lockdown apathy of lines like "I might change my sheets today", and "I’m just waiting for day to become night", but the one about "all eyes on the pavement" hit me the most, an echo of wary pedestrians giving each other a wide berth.

The songs were written in a friend's Melbourne flat Barnett was staying in. She sent demos to Stella Mozgawa, who plays drums in the band Warpaint, and they ended up co-producing the album in Sydney. They’re the only two musicians on it.

That leads to this minimal sound, with vintage drum machines often helping colour the sound. The aesthetic works really well on ‘Turning Green’, mostly bass and programmed drums, with splashes of live percussion.

"The trees are turning green" is such a simple lyric but in context it says so much. You can imagine Barnett peering out that window and measuring the passage of time.

She said she wanted these songs to be reassuring, as if she was singing to a friend. They got quieter due to writing at home, alone, but also as Barnett told The Guardian recently, she was "making the music [she] wanted to listen to – calm, repetitive, very comforting”.

That’s a sentiment we’ve heard a lot from musicians during the pandemic, and here leads to humble, adorable tracks like ‘Sunfair Sundown’.

These songs are comforting, and often cute. Barnett’s wit is in full force, and there’s plenty of empathy here, the lyrics looking outward rather than in. But I can’t help feeling that her voice, conversational, sliding between notes in that Dylan-drawl kind of way, is better suited to more substantial arrangements. Things Take Time, Take Time is a fine album, but feels a bit like a palette cleanser between main courses.

Shout Out! To Freedom… by Nightmares on Wax

George Evelyn AKA Nightmares on Wax

George Evelyn AKA Nightmares on Wax Photo: supplied

The second album by Nightmares on Wax - the stage name of Leeds-born producer George Evelyn - is an all-time trip hop classic. Called Smoker’s Delight, it’s generally regarded as a pinnacle in chill music. That album came out in 1995, but its creator, now in his early fifties, has put out records consistently since, all with moments that touch on the greatness of that earlier one.

His latest, Shout Out! To Freedom... is still built around vinyl selections and fragments of deep soul cuts, as well as a roster of young vocalists, including one from Aotearoa. As usual Evelyn flirts with funk, jazz and numerous other genres, and the album’s best moments are the ones that channel the distinctive, unmistakably summery sound he helped define.

The song ‘Creator SOS’ is the aural equivalent of a beatific sigh or a mojito on a hammock in the sun. Part of the magic is how it’s built around a single bar of music, laser-focused on distilling that good vibe. ‘Imagineering’ meanwhile is more meandering, with strings and piano roaming over a lilting rhythm.

And on ‘3D Warrior’ there are echoes of late era Massive Attack; it’s an ominous seven minutes of tribal percussion and Shabaka Hutchings blistering saxophone.

As much as I enjoy this music, it’s worth mentioning I’m troubled by its themes. It starts with a succession of voices saying ‘freedom’, but that word has been a bit slippery these past few decades, and even more so since things like vaccine mandates have emerged.

So I can nod my head along to ‘Wikid Satellites’, but when vocalist Greentea Peng, who has flirted with anti-vaccine sentiment in the past, sings about fluoride in the water being bad… I start to wonder what’s actually being protested here.

I might be wrong about where this is all coming from. Evelyn told MixMag “music has always been the channel for the common man or woman against the system. Now I find it’s the minimum amount of artists speaking up for the common man or woman.”

I agree with him wholeheartedly, in theory. He goes on to say "coming from a reggae, soundsystem and hip hop background, the voices I expected to hear have been quiet. There’s been a bit of an overreach in authority regardless of where you come from."

I worry that he’s getting at what I think he’s getting at. I wonder how much the pandemic has actually affected him, living a very comfortable life in Ibiza. I hope I’m wrong.

Regardless, after this review is filed I probably won’t think about it again, but I will keep enjoying this album, in all its smoky, soulful goodness.

Aotearoa’s Mara TK shows up on the song ‘Trillion’, along with a huge synth bass and sampled choir. His voice ping pongs between speakers, singing about "waiting a trillion days", and it’s a great match of talent; with Nightmares on Wax sounding inspired and exploratory alongside an equally exciting vocalist.