Review Summary: Kurt Vile hones his sound for a classic rock inspired record that is both original and nostalgic
It’s so interesting to trace the evolution of music from the rock giants of the 60s and 70s to the bands we know and love today. One can hear the rich harmonies of The Beach Boys in the psychedelic pop of Animal Collective or the spacey experimentation of David Bowie in the colorful indie pop of Wolf Parade. But for as much as they’re worth, those influences are often subtle. They are simply ingredients used for constructing a final product that is new and fresh. However crucial baking powder may be to making a cake, it is no longer recognizable when our pastry comes out of the oven.
Rarely can an album be heavily indebted to and celebratory of its influences while managing to sound so contemporary and original. Luckily for us, Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo
is one of those albums. Philadelphia guitarist Kurt Vile began his rise to prominence with the band The War on Drugs, a band I described as “Bob Dylan if he were shoegaze.” Despite the reaction that description elicited from a certain member of the alt/indie forum (I believe it was, “that sounds awful”), I stand by it. On the band’s debut LP Wagonwheel Blues
, frontman Adam Granduciel’s frantic delivery evokes Dylan’s overstuffed verses on albums like Bringing It All Back Home
, while the music itself sounds more like My Bloody Valentine if they had been raised on classic rock. Vile’s solo albums prior to Smoke Ring for My Halo
took cues mostly from The War on Drugs' formula, though they have a much more distinct singer-songwriter feel. You could definitely sense that Vile had more control, that the vision was his. But they were also riddled with inconsistency and a lack of focus. Although “Freeway” and “Freak Train” are undeniably two of Vile’s best songs (the former is one of my favorite songs of all time and perhaps Vile’s crowning achievement), the albums they are on, Constant Hitmaker
and Childish Prodigy
respectively, are tedious affairs, full of psych-folk variations that often go nowhere. Smoke Ring for My Halo
exhibits an unprecedented clarity and confidence not found in Vile’s earlier work.
As I mentioned earlier, Smoke Ring for My Halo
wears its influences on its sleeve. Folk and rock forefathers like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed and Nick Drake are all present on here. Like on album opener “Baby’s Arms,” when Vile moans in his signature drugged drawl, “shrink myself just like a Tom Thumb and I hide in my baby’s arms,” over reverb-drenched acoustic plucking, perhaps a reference to Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Or on the Petty-indebted tracks “Jesus Fever” and “In My Time,” two of the most accessible, concise and well-written songs on the album. The former shimmers with chorus but never loses momentum thanks to its simplistic but upbeat drum beat, while the latter plods along slowly, allowing Vile to showcase his much improved vocals, before exploding into a gnarly solo that exhibits his equally impressive guitar playing skills. In general, Vile’s voice is less abrasive and much more melodic, trading the deep-chested bellow of songs like “Freeway” for a more nasally whine capable of a much higher register.
The album overall is more acoustic, intimate and meditative. You can feel your heart flutter with every buzzing pluck of the low E string and emotional lyric like “I see through everyone even my own self now” on “On Tour.” “Peeping Tomboy” recalls Constant Hitmaker
’s beautiful album closer “Classic Rock In Spring/Freeway In Mind,” as Vile moans melancholy lines of love and regret over a delicate finger picking line. There’s a few moments on the album when Vile proves that he can still rock and deserves his enviously badass and punk surname. “Puppet To The Man,” full of dueling distorted guitars and swinging riffs, is the album’s sleeper. I wrote it off at first but it is perhaps the album’s finest track and certainly its most unique. Even the penultimate title track rocks back and forth on its main descending acoustic riff, the slap of Vile’s thumb against the guitar’s wooden body serving as the song’s pulse. “Society Is My Friend” is the album’s weirdest moment; its tumbling drums and dissonant guitars resemble The War on Drugs’ expansive “Show Me The Coast” or the noisier moments on Vile’s God is Saying This To You…
The album’s closer “Ghost Town” is the perfect combination of Vile’s old psychedelic tendencies and his newfound sentimental acoustic formulas. Vile’s open-ended and cryptic lyrics float and trail off over watery guitars and thunderclap drum hits.
There is a part of me that still regrets any artistic choice for concision that sacrifices weirdness and uniqueness. As much as I love Ariel Pink’s Before Today
, his choice to quell some of the weirder aspects of his earlier work was, to me, regrettable. With it, he lost part of what makes him so unique. Vile’s direction is definitely comparable. His older work was always singer-songwriter at its core, but most of it ended up sounded like acid-fueled mixes of psych-folk, noise and shoegaze. Smoke Ring for My Halo
ditches those fringe elements and embraces a mature clarity that is more accessible and ultimately more rewarding. In my review of The War on Drugs’ Future Weather
from last year, I showered praise for Adam Granduciel’s commanding presence and his ability to give the songs a distinct singer-songwriter feel while retaining the thick textures of a full band sound. Smoke Ring for My Halo
exhibits those same strengths, even more intimately than Future Weather
Smoke Ring for My Halo
is an extremely personal and self-reflective album. When I saw Vile perform in a packed record store to a crowd of 30 or 40 people with just an acoustic guitar and a small amp, he evoked the strung out emotion of the influences he was channeling. Standing inches away from the microphone with his long curly locks shrouding his face, he embodied both the Philadelphia heroin punk scene he hails from and the zoned out drone of Lou Reed. His guitar and his voice were smothered with reverb and each lyric echoed in my head with the same psychedelic and self-reflective reverberation as acid. “When I walk in, my head is practically dragging,” Vile self-deprecatingly sings on “Runner Ups.” With the confidence, maturity and clear vision he shows on Smoke Ring for My Halo
, he has me fooled. Smoke Ring for My Halo
is one of 2011's best records.