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Kurt Vile

by Mike Hotter on April 27, 2011

Smoke Ring for My Halo
Rising out of the Internet’s constant musical maelstrom about three years ago (though he’s been writing songs and playing in bands for many years before), Kurt Vile’s early lo-fi missives drew attention because of their indelibly catchy melodies and the intriguing persona/voice that carried them—some young but world-weary rocker child of Philadelphia, who managed to encapsulate an ethos with a few chords and a wry sense of humor, mystery and play. A big admirer of some of his early tracks, I was mostly disappointed by 2009’s Childish Prodigy, his first release for the mighty Matador Records. Its emphasis on Vile’s hard-rock side lessened the laidback and ramshackle charm that I liked so much in his earlier work.

Vile definitely gets it right on his latest, using all his strengths and leaving out the chaff (which usually gets produced when he is either too experimental or too ambitious). We get great examples of his scintillating acoustic fingerpicking (including the beautiful opener “Baby’s Arms,” which reaches heaven with the addition of Meg Baird’s backing vocals), a couple of simmering rockers, two pop-rock classics (“Jesus Fever” and “In My Time”), and a couple of droney stoner epics to end the album on a high note. Producer John Agnello (the Hold Steady, Dinosaur Jr.) helps Vile put together a succinct example of why he’s one of the best rock songwriters of his generation. Everything sounds vintage (as an album that features Mellotron, early Korg synths and a Farfisa organ alongside the rows of guitars should) but sparklingly new as well. You can tell a lot of thought went into the instrumentation of each song, and the subtle surprises (a few plucks of harp here, a vibraslap hit over there) keep you on your toes, just when you think you know where the music is going.

Lyrically, Vile has regained his knack for being specific and vague at the same time. In “Ghost Town,” he’s a sleepy spirit who lives to go shopping for Kinks records on vinyl. Sudden mentions of Christ appearing and disappearing lead the listener to be as disoriented as the singer sounds. I’ve got to say, it’s not an unpleasant feeling, much like the rest of this highly enjoyable album.