Do Kurt Vile And The War On Drugs Equal Some Philly Version Of The Elephant 6 Collective?

Just asking.  I mean if all the cross pollination between such bands as The Apples In Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel make for a rock’n’roll hydra, how are we to think of The War On Drugs and their City of Brotherly Love confrere Kurt Vile, both of which put out pretty interesting 2011 albums?

What got us to thinking about this was their inclusion in the upper reaches of Uncut Magazine’s 50 Best Albums of 2011 list (which eventually they’ll post to their website, which we’ve linked to).  It was a good year for the Uncut list — no more declaring Joanna Newsom or Portishead the Artist of the Year; this time they went with the brave and quite exemplary choice of PJ Harvey.  Too often around this time, Tulip Frenzy is forced to grapple with their championship of artists we’ve completely missed, or at least discovered too late to put on our Top 10 List, such as in 2009 when we only discovered Darker My Love through their high ranking.  This year, there weren’t a lot of surprises, but their putting both The War on Drugs and Kurt Vile in the Top 20 made us give these acts, both of whom we already liked okay, a second look.

We can’ really remember the backstory, whether Adam Granduciel of TWOD played with Vile or the other way around.  We do know that just as The War On Drug’s Slave Ambient is a stronger album than their last ‘un, WagonWheel Blues, Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo is stronger than his earlier, and presumably equally ironically titled Constant Hitmaker.   Both albums could use someone springing Phil Spector from jail in order to give ’em an All Things Must Pass work over, as each make an attempt at a Wall of Sound, the problem being their walls are the stuff of the housing bubble, constructed of sheet rock, not granite.  Each of these bands could use a little Apple Corps money thrust upon them, and are worthy of it, or at least a production budget equal to their ambition.

Granduciel and The War On Drugs prove they have more voices than Jimmy Fallon, sounding at times like the Dylan of The Basement Tapes, Arcade Fire, even U2.  “Brothers” is one of the best songs of 2011, even if Slave Ambient, with its pockets of Fripp and Eno aether, ultimately feels a bit insubstantial.  Vile’s entire album, even though it was ranked by Uncut a few notches lower than his pals, has the grit of a recurring dream, even shrouded in low-fi sound gauze.  Yes, there are times you think you’ve listened to this movie soundtrack before — oh yeah, it was Elliott Smith adorning Good Will Hunting — but it’s better than that.  I’ve been listening to both albums constantly for the past week, and conclude that, if there were a fire, and I only had time to download one on a thumb drive, I’d take along Kurt Vile.  His album’s just that bit more haunting, magical.  But then I’d probably sneak back into the inferno to download “Brothers.”  Probably die trying. Worth it?  Time will tell.

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