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
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
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,
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
Lotta Sea Lice (2017) with Courtney Barnett.
On the other hand, B'lieve I'm Goin Down (2015) was his biggest
It contains his hit Pretty Pimpin, a stately elegy somewhere between
Lynyrd Skynyrd and
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
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
However, his most profound statement is perhaps to be found in the
haunting six-minute shuffle Wheelhouse that doesn't try any of those
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
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
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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