War On Drugs released its debut, Wagonwheel Blues, in 2008 and hasn’t come out with a record since. That’s because 2008 was also the year when the group, billed as the creative vehicle for frontman Adam Granduciel, lost three of its founding members, including Kurt Vile, a guy who’s doing quite well on his own right now. Since then, Granduciel has rebuilt the group as a trio and began working on material for a sophomore LP that reaches us this month in the form of Slave Ambient.
If you’re looking for what makes this record different from the first, look no further than the second word of its title. During the gap years, War On Drugs picked up a hazy ambiance that gives the band’s Americana backbone a reverberant feel. The songwriting is less guitar-based—with synth textures and leads popping up in places where you might expect a guitar solo—and much softer on the whole. “Best Night,” the shuffling opener, starts in media res, as if you’re being quietly ushered into something that’s already been unfolding for some time, and the record really doesn’t hit its stride until “Your Love Is Calling My Name,” which comes fourth in the lineup.
Slave Ambient is spacy on the surface, but the record is firmly grounded by nods to the American songwriting tradition. Granduciel’s singing strikes a balance between Dylan’s lazy croon and Springsteen’s anthemic everyman belt, and the harmonica parts on “I Was There” and “Baby Missles” sound enough like Nebraska to give you the creeps. To keep things from becoming xenophobic, “Come To The City,” the record’s centerpiece and probably its best track, skips over the pond to evoke U2’s stadium largesse for four and a half minutes.
Other than that and “Baby Missles,” Slave Ambient doesn’t have too many standout points, and its 47 minutes are padded with a heaping dose of instrumental transition and drone tracks. But while the record might have benefited from some more discrimination on the cutting room floor, it’s still a focused, complete record and a pleasurable listen.