The War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream (2014) (morphs into a rant about the desirability of paying for music)

Sorry to be so damn current. There’s been considerable praise for this album and it’s now making lots of year end “best of” lists. I did manage to get to this album in the year of it’s release, but I’m still late to the party.

And I don’t know what to make of it – though I may still – because there’s a remarkable feature to this album that I found quite distracting. That is it’s synthesis of 80s and late 70s influences. I thought I was imagining this. There were, my ears told me anyway, clear nods to Springsteen, to Van Morrison, to Infidels era Dylan, to several other things that sounded so damn familiar but I couldn’t quite put my finger on them, and, perhaps a little more fancifully, I thought, Chris Rea, Bob Seeger and Bruce Hornsby.

I’m not saying that this is bad or wrong or reduces the work to mere imitation. The influences, and especially the era, are quite obvious but it’s never imitative. Besides, it’s hard for currently active musicians to not have influences. But I found it distracting – which may just be me. What wasn’t just me, it turned out, was the spotting of that 80s FM friendly rock sound. I checked several other reviews and found that almost without fail the reviewers (often more experienced and more knowledgeable than me) had picked up on this. Hornsby turned out to be not so far fetched, everybody agrees on Springsteen (though I think the particular aspect that is being picked up here is the more cinematic texture that Roy Bittan bought to the Boss’s sound) and most check Dylan, quite a few invoked Dire Straits (which I’m less sure of personally) and one or two detected a nod to mid 80s Rod Stewart. So I’m not alone.

The War On Drugs are one of those “bands” that are really about one person and that person’s vision. In this case the person is Adam Granduciel, and he was born in 1979. So he wasn’t really there in the 80s, but his command of the styles of that era is remarkable. What is especially interesting is the way that he’s managed to receive so much of the musical style of that often reviled era but manage to miss out on the production gimmicks that beset so many records made back then.

I’m hedging around making a conclusion – for reasons I’ve already touched on. But here’s another thing: I hear from time to time wailings about the lack of new electric guitar-driven pop and rock music in this day and age – with the obvious exception of the whole metal scene, the guitar being essential to metal music. Sure the old guys are still busy touring and performing their old hits, and the Kings Of Chaos still pop up and do their self-tribute band act for silly money. But where is the new guitar-driven music?

Well, here’s a place to start. If you’re fond of that 80s and latter 70s “classic rock” sound then what’s not to like here? And I don’t believe this is the only game in town either. I’ve been listening to My Morning Jacket and there’s plenty of riffery going on there as well.

What I think is a problem, certainly here in South Africa, is that the radio doesn’t play this stuff. We have to turn to other sources now to find the happening stuff that you might like. For me, in the last couple of years, it’s become clear that this is actually a very good era for music. There’s lots of it around, lots of it new. And additionally all the classic albums you heard people my age raving about (and even some that I missed because I was just too young to really get into music in the 60s) are available on iTunes and the like. HIT music seems rather less interesting than it did even in the 80s, but there are lots of independent labels around servicing audiences that are less swayed by current fashion and mass appeal. So all you have to do really, is give up on the radio and on MTV and look in other places. If you have a curiosity about music then you’ll find it.

And for Pete’s sake PAY for the stuff. The entire Lost In The Dream is available for download in several places – and in none of these instances is it made available by the band or their label. And this is not an isolated case – as you can easily verify. I mentioned My Morning Jacket – and they’re in the same situation. A few years ago I went to a Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain show in  London, and they observed from the stage that “some bastard” had uploaded their current DVD in it’s entirety. There are people I very much want to continue making music – and a lot of them don’t have mansions in Beverley Hills. It seems only logical to pay for their produce so they can afford to make more of it rather than jacking it all in and doing something else for a living.

Here endeth the lesson.

PS: Streaming services such as Spotify don’t count – the money they charge you has a way of not making it’s way to the artist. Taylor Swift withdrew her latest album from Spotify for precisely that reason – she wants herself to be paid for her work. Herself, and, of course, her band and her producers. Spotify, it seems not unreasonable to conclude, are wanting to drum up business and then make themselves rich with an IPO. They have no long-term interest in music or musicians. It may not even be sustainable in the long run BECAUSE artists – Swift is not the first to go this route, though hers is probably the most publicised stand – will realise that for them it’s not a good deal and will exert control over the distribution of their output.

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