The next best thing to attending a live concert by a band you like is to listen to a recording of a live concert by the band. So when The War On Drugs (Twod) released an album, pithily titled LIVE DRUGS, this month, fans (such as this writer) exulted. Twod’s gigs are enjoyable, their already large soundscape expansively fills arenas, and there’s never a dull moment. Now that most gigs have been cancelled owing to the pandemic, Twod’s move to release a live album couldn’t have been timelier.
LIVE DRUGS is not the usual live album. Those happen to be recordings of a single or a set of gigs that are released as an album and normally are in toto reproductions of what a band plays at a concert. For their album, however, Twod’s frontman, Adam Granduciel, who sings and plays one of the two lead guitars for the band, sifted through around 40 hard drives full of recordings of the band’s concerts from 2014-19 and selected some of the best tracks that he and a producer then sequenced to appear like a full gig. The result is a brilliant album that showcases the Philadelphia-based band’s unique brand of music, in which neo-psychedelia meets and mates with heartland roots rock.
Twod’s albums are always filled with surprises. Granduciel’s vocals can remind you of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty all rolled into one. A little more than three years ago, this column had covered A Deeper Understanding, Twod’s last studio album. It was a great album and a good way to explore Twod’s psychedelia-meets-classic rock style. With LIVE DRUGS, however, they take their game to another level. The carefully chosen 10 songs have Granduciel in the spotlight. Nine of them are written by him; the lead guitar solos are mostly his. And the soundscape of each song expands as it unfolds.
A Twod song can begin innocuously, like a basic, no-frills roots rock track. But then, before you know it, the guitar solos kick in, and within minutes, your ears are on a totally different trip. That’s probably why critics tend to classify Twod’s music in the neo-psychedelic genre. On LIVE DRUGS, Granduciel and the co-producer, guitar techie Dominic East, have chosen songs that appear to segue from one to another as if they have been played during the same gig. Half of the songs, however, were part of the band’s 2014 studio album, Lost In The Dream, which was Twod’s breakthrough album, bringing with it mainstream recognition and tons of fans.
LIVE DRUGS clocks in at just 70 minutes and that is perhaps the album’s only shortcoming. It could have been longer, with more songs. Listening to Twod live, however, is always a treat. There is a bonus too. One of the 10 songs is a brilliant cover of the late Warren Zevon’s Accidentally Like A Martyr. Zevon, who died at 56 in 2003, was an influential singer and songwriter and the cover of one of his hits is like a tribute to the much admired musician.
But the song that stands out in the new album is the nearly 12-minute Under The Pressure. It brings to the fore Granduciel’s true genius as a songwriter and performer. It opens with a spaceyguitar riff that is as much a delight on headphones as on good stereophonic speakers and can easily transport the listener to a blissful musical heaven. And then Granduciel launches into the song (Well the comedown here was easy/ Like the arrival of a new day/ But a dream like this gets wasted/ Without you/ Under the pressure/ Is where we are/ Under the pressure/ Yeah, it’s where we are babe).
Twod began as a local indie band with fans mainly in and around Philly, but soon grew into a mainstream draw. Mixing noise rock style guitar with classic roots rock is not something you would normally expect a band to do, let alone pull off with élan. Twod does it effortlessly. When it began, Twod was a venture of Granduciel and Kurt Vile but after the first full-length album, Vile left the band and now has a flourishing solo career. Since then Twod has released three more full-length albums, and, of course, this year’s LIVE DRUGS.
Twod’s success as a band not only has much to do with Granduciel’s talent but with the fact that the band’s music is so accessible. Older generations of listeners weaned on classic rock like the rootsy feel of their music and take to their improvisations and fuzzy, synth-driven lines as easily as younger listeners do. In that sense, their studio albums cut across the generation gap, appealing to a broad audience.
But it is their live performances that make Twod really stand out. LIVE DRUGS’ songs are not new, and they aren’t from very recent gigs. But the 10 songs on the album are essential for fans —and a great place to start if someone isn’t familiar with the band.
Five tracks from ‘LIVE DRUGS’ to bookend your week
1. ‘Under The Pressure’
2. ‘An Ocean In Between The Waves’
3. ‘Thinking Of A Place’
4. ‘Red Eyes’
5. ‘Accidentally Like A Martyr’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.