Kurt Vile


(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Constant Hitmaker (2008), 5.5/10
God Is Saying This To You (2009), 5/10
Childish Prodigy (2009), 6/10
Smoke Ring for My Halo (2011), 6.5/10
Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador, 2013), 6/10
B'lieve I'm Goin Down (2015), 6/10
Bottle It In (2018), 5/10
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On his own, Kurt Vile of Philadelphia's War On Drugs performed amateurish garage-rock on Constant Hitmaker (Gulcher, 2008), that contains the catchy Freeway, evolving towards a more philosophical (and acoustic) style on God Is Saying This To You (2009), but still pervaded by garage fuzz and highlighted by a laconic albeit intense fingerpicking style.

Childish Prodigy (Matador, 2009) contains the frenzied seven-minute shuffle Freak Train, the love ballad Blackberry, the acid folk lullaby Overnite Religion, the bluesy dirge Inside Lookin' Out as well as the raw boogie Hunchback, spanning a broad range of styles. Vile often sounds like he is impersonating Alan Vega or Lou Reed, and his band owes quite a bit to the new wave of the late 1970s.

The EP Square Shells (Matador, 2010) split his persona between the "acid" wordless visionary of Losing Momentum or The Finder and the verbose hobo-like storyteller of Hey Now I'm Movin.

The hobo won out. Smoke Ring for My Halo (2011) was his most complex collection yet, and the most professional-sounding, from the straightforward power-pop singles Jesus Fever and In My Time (neither particularly catchy nor particularly creative) to the atmospheric shuffle Smoke Ring For My Halo, and from an oneiric ballad like Ghost Town, somewhere in between Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, to the other highlight, Puppet to the Man, a Lou Reed-ian rant and slow boogie that, mildly accelerated, could make the Rolling Stones jealous. Vile's lyrical acumen is the only support for the spartan folk lullabies Baby's Arms and Peeping Tomboy, for the solemn meditation of Society Is My Friend and for the proud litany of Runner Ups. Ghost Town and Puppet to the Man, instead, have a magic cinematic quality that justifies the hype.

The EP So Outta Reach (Matador, 2011) adds six more recordings from the same sessions, notably The Creature.

Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador, 2013) is inferior to the two albums that preceded it, despite a generally more mature and confident tone. Everything is arranged and performed with grace and competence, but also everything sounds derivative: the nine-minute opener Wakin on a Pretty Day is a Lou Reed-ian epic, KV Crimes borrows the most abrasive Neil Young jams, Pure Pain mimicks Led Zeppelin's hard folk, and Snowflakes Are Dancing is a fatalistic Bob Dylan-ian rant. Too Hard is perhaps the most original piece here, a hazy, dreamy eight-minute elegy that harks back to the era of the Pearls Before Swine. The sheer size of the songs has grown because Vile and his band indulge in lazy transcendent bridges that evoke a calmer, simpler, sober version of Built To Spill.

Vile also released a couple of mediocre collaborations: Parallelogram (2015), a split album with Steve Gunn that contains only two Vile originals (Red Apples for Tom Scharpling and NPR Reject) and Lotta Sea Lice (2017) with Courtney Barnett.

On the other hand, B'lieve I'm Goin Down (2015) was his biggest commercial success. It contains his hit Pretty Pimpin, a stately elegy somewhere between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon. That's just the tip of the iceberg: the whole album mines the vocabulary of classic rock, blues and country. Hence the country excursion of the banjo-driven I'm An Outlaw, somewhere between Stan Ridgway and Taj Mahal; and Dust Bunnies, which mixes Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down and the Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women. That's Life, Tho (Almost Hate To Say) is like Leonard Cohen arranged by Julia Holter. However, his most profound statement is perhaps to be found in the haunting six-minute shuffle Wheelhouse that doesn't try any of those cross-stylistic tricks. Alas, it's all downhill from there. It almost feels like this album is the combination of two EPs recorded at different times, or is an EP to which he appended a few leftovers that he was about to throw in the garbage. Life Like This is positively boring, and the seven-minute lounge ballad Lost My Head There sounds like second-rate Billy Joel. In general, the piano-based songs are vastly inferior. The spare subdued All In A Daze Work is the most Nick Drake-ian moment. It is not clear what the function of the instrumental Bad Omens is other than fill three minutes. The closer, Wild Imagination, is a decent meditation halfway between Lou Reed and Tom Petty, and that's the best of the second half.

Like its two predecessors, Bottle It In (2018) is an uneven collection that mixes moments of genius and pathos with moments of uninspired and trivial routine; but this one, an 80-minute tour de force, adds another problem: it often feels self-indulgent and meandering. The arrangements are generally more sophisticated and the sound is louder and fuller. It is not a singer-songwriter's album but a rock band's album. A drum-machine pops up in Hysteria, electronic keyboards blanket Yeah Bones There are four very long songs. The ten-minute Bassackwards goes literally nowhere. There's a loop in the background, some plain guitar strumming, steady drumming. The eight-minute Check Baby fares better because it's a stately rocker propelled by a farting synth and Vile sings in a psychotic tone a` la Alan Vega; but it's still three or four minutes too long. The ten-minute Bottle It In, that feels like it was recorded in a basement, is as monotonous as a song can get and there's little that harpist Mary Lattimore can do in the coda to rescue it. Skinny Mini is another ten minutes of tedious repetition and amateurish guitar playing. Listening to these lengthy tortures disguises as songs, one feels that Vile has been infected with the same disease that led Mark Kozelek turn his career into an endless stream of consciousness. Among the shortest songs, the only keeper is the catchy, jangling, Tom Petty-esque folk-rock ditty One Trick Ponies. Loading Zones is another Tom Petty imitation but suffers from bombastic production, as does the banjo-driven Come Again. Kim Gordon's acoustic counterpoint is slowly destroyed by the electronics as the gentle madrigal Mutinies becomes a quirky instrumental. This is by far Vile's worst album yet.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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