Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Kurt Vile

I came late to the Kurt Vile party, which is a funny thing to say because the party hasn’t been going on very long. Back in March, after the release of his most recent LP, Smoke Ring for My Halo, when the buzz around Vile was at its zenith, I got on iTunes and listened to the 90-second previews of all the songs on the album, and I wasn’t impressed (I’ve since come to the realization that I’m never impressed when I check out music this way). But then I picked up the split 7” he did with Woods for their summer tour. I bought it for the Woods tracks, and I wound up listening to the Vile side a lot more. It has an acoustic guitar number where he sings, “You’re in and out again,” over and over, and his voice is incredibly evocative -- it feels lonely, kind of sad, kind of angry, kind of indifferent, a whole range of emotions, really. And there’s a little bit of echo added to it, so every time he taps the body of his guitar or scrapes his fingers across the strings, the sound reverberates, giving the song just a touch of trippy-ness.
I was instantly hooked, and I’m now committed to buying every LP, EP and 7” of his that I can get my hands on. The first three I picked up from the record store were God is Saying This To You, the Square Shells EP and Smoke Ring for My Halo. I played them all back to back, in order of release, and the first two were more of the psychedelic folk I’d fallen in love with on the split 7” – especially God is Saying This To You, which has all kinds of outer space sounds floating gently through its simple acoustic strumming-and-singing tunes. Vile’s voice sounds distant and eerie throughout, and, like the tune on the split 7”, full of a wide range of contradictory emotions. I was particularly taken by “Red Apple,” a song that sounds alternately like a 78 recording of an old man singing a sad old song on the porch of a pine shack in the Appalachians and a drone that leads to transcendence, and “Song for John in D,” which begins with crystalline finger picking and picks up layers of spacey sounds, building toward a brief, poetic vocal interlude before finishing with a few moments of lilting slide guitar. I was taken aback, though, when I got to Smoke Ring. It’s his second LP for a big label, Matador, and his first with a pro producer, so it’s much more polished and less weird, with a full band backing him. Throughout that first listen I worried that I’d missed him in his prime, that he’d sold out. But it’s an album that dares you to keep coming back. You can tell there’s a lot going on in there, but you can’t figure out what it is. And the more I listened, the more it opened up to me, revealing a lot of freakiness – more, in fact, in places and in its own way, than on the earlier album. The difference here is that the space is all in service to the songs, and is woven tightly into their architecture. The vocals are clearer, too, more singerly, and it takes a few listens to push past the polish and find the gritty feelings they evince. But they’re there, and they’re haunting, they keep pulling me back to listen again and again. To me that’s the mark of great art, when the complex is made simple.
I haven’t had a chance yet to pick up So Outta Reach, the EP of five songs Vile recorded while he was making Smoke Ring (also included in the new deluxe CD release)but I’ve listened to a few songs online and so far they’ve confounded me in the way the LP’s songs did. But that’s nothing a few dozen listens on vinyl won’t cure, I’m sure. 

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