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The War on Drugs bridges the generation gap

This indie band’s music has deep classic rock roots but is layered to hook the old and the young alike

(from left) Keyboardist Robbie Bennett, vocalist Adam Granduciel and bassist David Hartley from The War on Drugs. Photo: AP
(from left) Keyboardist Robbie Bennett, vocalist Adam Granduciel and bassist David Hartley from The War on Drugs. Photo: AP (AP)

Days after Tom Petty died early this month, The War on Drugs (Twod) paid tribute to him by opening a show at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre with a cover of Petty’s Time To Move On. Many bands have paid similar tributes to Petty, who was an iconic star of American rock, but there was something a little bit unique about the Twod gesture. Petty features prominently among the influencers who have inspired the classic rock that the Philadelphia band plays. The others include Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, especially Springsteen. An attempt to write a description of the music that Twod play can make it seem anachronistic: Twod make guitar-centric music; in fact, there are a couple of guitarists in the band and their solos are de rigueur in most songs; and then there are the melodies and the lyrics that seem to hark back to themes that were covered by rock’s biggies from the 1970s and 1980s (yes, Dylan, Springsteen and Petty included!). Such a description can make the band seem like copycat purveyors of what is disparagingly called Dad-rock, a genre that is so derivative of an earlier era that it appeals to the older generations and not to young people. It would also be patently unfair because the fact is otherwise.

In 12 years, during which it released four full-length albums, Twod have simultaneously found critical acclaim, charmed older boomer fans, and found thousands of younger millennial fans. Their albums, especially the last two—2014’s Lost In The Dream and this year’s A Deeper Understanding—have been received well and, in a world where record sales keep spiralling downwards, have sold successfully. It’s because Twod don’t make Dad-rock.

Their classic rock has all the elements of what Springsteen’s “working class" rock incorporates, or what Dylan’s electric era ballads did, but not those alone. Typically, Twod’s songs begin like classic rock tunes with simple, predictable instrumentation, but soon that traditional roots rock transforms with layer upon layer of new sounds added on: analogue synthesizers (think the ARP Omni), horns, guitar reverb and fuzz, all making for a satisfying complexity that appeals equally to older listeners weaned on classic rock and millennial fans who want more than mere guitar rock that their parents grooved on.

Founded by guitarists and singers Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile (although the latter quit after the first album and has blazed a successful solo trail), Twod are a sextet (two guitars; bass; drums; keyboards; and sax) but one where Granduciel calls all the shots, nearly single-handedly composing, arranging, singing, and running the band. What makes Twod stand out is, first, their music, a hybrid that weds simple old-style rock with complex waves of new sounds, and, second, Granduciel’s stubbornly uncompromising approach towards creative freedom and quality of production. Only one song on the new album, A Deeper Understanding, is just 4 minutes long; the others are much longer, including one, Thinking Of A Place, which is more than 11 minutes long. That song starts with a haunting synth line and then gets a layer of slide guitar before Granduciel starts singing lyrics about love, but one that is a bit dark and mysterious. Before you’re halfway into the song, there is his psychedelic guitar solo followed by swirling keyboards, an interlude before the vocals kick in again. Then there is another solo, this time Granduciel is on the harmonica followed by yet another reverb-laden, lead guitar solo. Like most Twod songs, it’s one that hooks you and has you tripping.

That’s the thing about Twod. They do psychedelic with élan. They do old-fashioned rock with finesse. They do perfectly produced songs that are at once easy to get into but also complex and brimming with instrumentation. Deadheads of the kind that don’t mind listening to other people doing the Grateful Dead’s songs (I know quite a few terminal cases who do!) will remember Twod’s opening track on the marathon Day Of The Dead tribute album from last year. Their version of Touch Of Grey not only did justice to the original but set the tone for the remaining 58 Dead covers that other bands did on that five-CD extravaganza.

Rock stardom sits lightly on Twod and its main man, Granduciel, by all accounts shuns the limelight (although his more famous girlfriend of three years—Krysten Ritter of Netflix original series Jessica Jones fame—could make that a bit difficult). Granduciel has also battled anxiety and panic attacks and the music on 2014’s Lost In The Dreams, which he nearly single-handedly composed and played a dozen instruments on, reflects some of that, particularly on songs such as Red Eyes, Suffering and An Ocean In Between The Waves.

A classic rock band that has universal appeal could seem like an oxymoronic description but this is a band that seems to be able to do that. I’ve seen middle-aged rock fans get up and play air-guitar to a Twod album; and I’ve seen younger music lovers nod their heads in approval. The War on Drugs has won them all.

The Lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. The War on Drugs full performance (Live on KEXP) on YouTube

2. ‘An Ocean In Between The Waves’ by The War on Drugs from ‘Lost In The Dream’

3. ‘Nothing To Find’ by The War on Drugs from ‘A Deeper Understanding’

4. ‘Thinking Of A Place’ by The War on Drugs from ‘A Deeper Understanding’

5. ‘Your Love Is Calling My Name’ by The War on Drugs from ‘Slave Ambient’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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