The U.S. government may have declared a "war" on drugs in June 1969, but the band that take their name from that unmitigated failure look back a few years prior for musical inspiration. Specifically, the 10 months that started with the release of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (in May 1966) and ended with the release of the Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground & Nico (in March 1967). The War on Drugs’ debut album, Wagonwheel Blues, a nine-song trip down 1960’s revivalism way, blends a VU-style sonic bludgeoning with Bob Dylan’s “deedn’t yooouu?” hard vocal patois and wistfulness for the good ole dustbowl.
Granted, the "spot the Bob Dylan reference" game is over as quickly as it starts; as soon as opener “Arms Like Boulders” kicks off with its loud harmonica vamp and lead singer Adam Granduciel starts prattling on about god being a catapult and how there’s no snow when you’re looking for stuff, it becomes clear these guys really, really like “Visions of Johanna.” But for a Dylan pastiche, it’s better than just about anything that’s been touted as the “new Dylan” in the past few years (looking at you Conor Oberst); the poetry is tight and vague, and the music is backward-looking without sounding (too) dated.
Wagonwheel Blues is a pretty ingenious title for this work because it makes any wagon-wheel metaphors in relation to the percussion and melody ridiculously obvious. Unfortunately, they’re also unavoidable, because “Taking the Farm,” the album’s first single and standout track, crackles, shuffles, and rolls like a wagon moving across the vast open spaces of Nebraska on its way to the west (sorry). “Show Me the Coast” brings this sound to its inevitable conclusion. The sounds gets bigger, the drumming faster, the attack more pressing.
“Buenos Aires Beach” is the first glimpse of the band as Velvet Underground appropriates, with the percussion and melody adopting the subway-car acceleration of “Waiting for the Man.” The aptly titled “There Is No Urgency” patiently builds from silence into a sonic murk into a bombastic feedback requiem that bleeds perfectly into “A Needle in Your Eye #16.” The latter track has a heavy two-chord undertow and rudimentary drumming that sounds not only like “Black Angel’s Death Song” but also like the entire catalog of Austin, Texas, psych-rock band the Black Angels.
It’s impossible not to listen to Wagonwheel Blues without it conjuring up thoughts of noticeable pillars of rock history. But that doesn’t make Wagonwheel Blues a trite act of tribute. Most of the album (with the exception of closer “Barrel of Batteries”) plays like an affirmation that certain sounds created 40 years ago haven’t been mined and repeated to a point where they can’t still sound as invigorating as they once were.