Kurt Vile: the magic of low-fi, low-fuss
I've got hooked on Kurt Vile's fourth full-length solo album, Smoke Ring for My Halo. It was released last year - I played it, liked it, but moved on. (Often the curse of reviewing music - sometimes you don't get back to the albums you want to.) I'm glad I went back to this. This year it's been one of my favourite albums - a record I can play start to finish again and again; a slow-burner, it crept up on me. It revealed more secrets with further listens - I was too quick to write it off, to forget about it. It nagged at me enough so I returned to it.
Listening to Smoke Ring for My Halo you can hear the Lou Reed of the Sally Can't Dance album on Puppet to the Man; there's a touch of David Kilgour to Jesus Fever - you could almost imagine it fitting in on The Clean's Mister Pop album or somewhere/anywhere across Kilgour's solo career. And on On Tour I hear a touch of Neil Young in the way the guitar is played, broken chords reassembled and made to fit. A seesawing rhythm-arm action to guide the song and create the real pulse of the tune.
We're only four songs in - spend enough time with this album and every track is a hit. Next up is Society Is My Friend - a bit more of the Lou Reed drawl - but there's so much more than a monotone.
And it's at this point in the album that I really started to hear the magic of Kurt Vile's lo-fi/low-fuss music. In a world where alt-country is a genre signpost that now offers no direction whatsoever, he has built his version of alternative country music - a busted-up folkie offering shoegazer shimmer one minute, greasy bar-room riff-rock the next. There is no feeling of actor and acting and this is no folly - Vile almost is his own genre. That's surely the hope for any musician, particularly in a world of rent-a-genre moments and fleeting fads.
So last week the timing was right - I was in San Francisco and so was Kurt Vile (with his band, The Violators). And it was at The Fillmore. Seemed the thing to do.
Cool venue, all those great posters to check out before I entered - comedians such as Robin Williams and Dave Chappelle have played The Fillmore. And almost everyone you could want to see who has made music - a great photo of David Byrne with a stage filled with Latin-American percussion instruments, Miles Davis turned with his back mostly away from the audience. Janis Joplin of course and Jim Morrison and The Grateful Dead and more recent photos of touring acts...a great slice of history...
But then Kurt Vile & The Violators are on stage. And that's what I was there for. I caught a cab down to the venue from where we were staying, a quick ride. Went to the gig by myself. Twentty-three dollars on the night - bargain. Rocked up, bought a ticket, in.
I was curious to hear if Vile could/would perform the two sides of his music live - the acoustic ditties like Peeping Tomboy and the electric-guitar strutters: Wilco songs that he scribbles into place, taking less care to make it all fit - so neatly - within the lines; a touch of Springsteen to his journeyman writing and, for me, still the comparison to Neil Young as songwriter, because of the distinct acoustic and electric voices, I guess.
Well he kicked off with some rockers - the band in committed gallop behind him, big thumps on the floor-toms and for most of it there were three guitars on attack, no bass. Sometimes a guitarist would become a bass-player again, for a song or two, but often it was just three lead players, no crowding though and no collisions, each surfing their own wave.
Songs meandered into place and fell away into mild dissonance, a shimmering fog of fuzz pedal madness assisting the change in gears, and Vile cherry-picked from the Halo album as well as offering a range of songs from his earlier efforts - with some great tunes from 2009's Childish Prodigy (another grower; another album I'm really digging).
Scribbled solos and crunching riffs with the drums often another texture as well as providing the rhythm; a maraca-shake, a subverted Bo Diddley-beat.
When Vile was left alone on the stage for his open-tuned acoustic ballads there was a sense that it was - almost - a better show. He really is a great guitarist and the influence of John Fahey was clear to hear. James Blackshaw too.
But that's underselling the band. I was hoping his cover of Springsteen's Downbound Train (from the So Outta Reach EP) would get an airing. I figured that wishful. Not only did I get my wish - it was a highlight, a ferocious solo from Vile lifted it far up and beyond the version I'm familiar with; the squall of guitars very much Crazy Horse-esque but with an added fury. Again, I thought of David Kilgour, in terms of the calmness from within the storm, the guitarist centred at the eye of the hurricane.
Freak Train (from Childish Prodigy) was an epic closing track - a saxophone added to the wash of guitars for more noise, Don Cherry jamming with The Velvet Underground - something Lou Reed would have loved to make happen; something he was able to realise only much later on.
And then Vile was back out, solo, for the opening track from Smoke Ring, Baby's Arms.
That guy sure can play. I'm glad I got to the gig. Perfect timing. And it's had me back on the album for the past few days - playing it once a day, playing the So Outta Reach EP also. Often, for me, a gig is the beginning of the end for an artist, I slow down with their music, move on. I'm either happy, or I'm not - but either way I'm done with them for now. But seeing Kurt Vile live felt like the real beginning, a new beginning - he offered faithful renditions of his songs but it didn't feel as though he was just copying the album, live was a whole other feeling. And the record now stands alone as its own thing - quite separate from the performance.
I like the songs. I like the way he plays them - on the record and live.
So are you a fan? Have you seen him live? Would you like to? And what did you think of Smoke Ring for My Halo? Have you heard it - or are you keen to check it out? And do you like some of Vile's other material?