On Kurt Vile’s Justifiably Lo-Fi New Album

03/07/2011 4:00 AM |

Kurt Vile
Smoke Ring For My Halo

(Matador)

When Kurt Vile released the Square Shells EP in May of last year, there was suddenly even more promise than their had been previously in a career that, really, was always full of promise. Opening track “Ocean City” saw Vile bravely shed most of the noise and fuzz that was not only present on, but actively defined his earlier work, most notably his breakout Childish Prodigy. There was some simple acoustic guitar strumming, along with some understated noise at the end, but the star of the show was obviously the vocals. They sat higher in the mix than they ever had before, as the Philadelphia native clearly and assuredly put words to one of his most addictive melodies ever. “You’ve got a best friend now,” he sang repeatedly. And you really wanted to believe him. 

The rest of the EP wasn’t quite as sunshiny, but still, there was enough clarity and separation present that it offered more than sufficient reason to believe he was heading in a new direction, that he’d climbed out from under the crushing weight of the purposefully low-fi psych-rock he’d become known for. Not that he’s bad at that stuff, of course: he’s better at it than almost anyone, with an undeniable knack for subtlety, both in his playing and his singing, that somehow manages to draw you in rather than push you away. But, at the risk of sounding somewhat boneheaded, it was nice to think he’d do something where his considerable skills were more obviously on display.

And the truth is Smoke Ring for My Halo does mark a change in direction, but not necessarily the one he hinted at with “Ocean City.” The most striking thing about it is the degree to which it’s content to linger in the middle of the road in terms of both volume and tempo. Prodigy had songs like “Hunchback,” “Freak Train” and “Monkey,” which were commanding in the most classic sense: they boasted loud guitars and some well-placed screaming that you couldn’t ignore if you wanted to. But there were also tracks like “Blackberry Song” and “He’s Alright,” which clearly put on display a softer, but no less weird side of Vile.

Halo lives squarely between the two. Album opener “Baby’s Arms” gets things off to an appropriate start, with some swirling background noise and a repetitive acoustic guitar pattern that will make you pleasantly dizzy or unable to stand up, depending on how far into your night you are. First single “Jesus Fever” is the most obviously pop-oriented track on the record, its guitar melody as upbeat and quirky as anything he’s ever done, but it’s an anomaly on a record that’s dominated by tracks like “Puppet to the Man” and “Society is My Friend.” They’re somewhat plodding and a little bit clunky, carrying on for a little longer than they need to, with little in the way of dynamic range.

If you’re willing to sit down and listen to the album on headphones, though, which you should be, you will find an awful lot to like. Despite his aversion to showy guitar theatrics, Vile is one of the best guitarists working in indie rock today, with an endearing effortlessness and an ear for melody that invokes J. Mascis at every turn#&8212;a feat few others have ever truly been capable of. His understanding of song structure and his willingness to flip the script every now and then make for a rewarding listen. And in that sense, it’s the most ideal iteration of lo-fi: everything you could ever want in a rock song is right there for you if you know what you’re looking for, which is more than almost every other lo-fi band can say these days. That being the case, it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if he put it all out there in plain sight.