March 7, 2011

Charlie Sheen may have ruined it, but Douglas Martin pioneered winning.

As the protagonist of his own songs, Kurt Vile has a reputation for being kind of a tough guy. A misanthrope. A brilliant kiss-off artist who doesn’t suffer fools. And though he confesses, “I get sick of just about everyone,” it’s what happens next that’s a little surprising. He hides in his baby’s arms. He hides. But “Baby’s Arms”– the opening salvo of Vile’s fourth LP, Smoke Ring for My Halo— isn’t about cowering in fear from the perils of the treacherous modern life, it’s about finding solace and comfort in an embrace. Finding a cozy place when the world makes you dizzy from sickness. The songs chilly ambiance and cavernous reverb evokes the feeling of watching a blizzard from your bed, the warmth from body heat and blankets providing comfortable emotional distance from the snow covering the ground.

“Sometimes I get stuck in a rut, too,” Vile explains on “Puppet to the Man,” highlighting the themes of internal struggle that permeate Smoke Ring. When he’s not grappling with himself, his troubles are never much farther than the back of his mind: “I’m just playin’,” he sings on “On Tour,” “I got it made.” Then comes a pregnant pause and the admission, “Most of the time.” On the album, Vile stews in bloodbaths, sleepwalks through a ghost town, and compares the lives of traveling musicians to the tumult of Lord of the Flies. Though I’m sure getting stiffed by a promoter isn’t quite as bad as Piggy getting killed, not enough modern songwriters acknowledge the scope of America’s required reading curriculum. Throughout the album, Vile sells everything with his confident, half-slurry delivery, revealing himself as a casually charismatic singer.

Having already written about Philadelphia’s rising crop of dad-rockers, it must be said that Vile is somewhat of the de-facto leader of this movement. Smoke Ring for My Halo doesn’t feature any stomping barnburners with sometime backing band The Violators, however. What the classic-rock-leaning songs lack in visceral catharsis, it makes up for in subtle nuance. Keyboards float where sweat and spit used to fly, providing these tracks with a dramatic flair that sometimes doesn’t sit well with Vile’s tendency to meander his way to a song’s endpoint. The exception here is “Jesus Fever,” where Vile adds a bit of drum-machine to give the track its driving edge, and a brief key change in the middle-eight that jolts you back into attention.

The place where Vile always connects is in the realm of the folk song. Hunched over his acoustic guitar is where he spins the most gold. There’s a reason why God is Saying This to You remains his best work, because the quiet, folky tunes– interspersed with his spacey, ambient interludes– showed him leveling his songwriting instincts with a real sense of focus, wrapping things up in less than 29 minutes. So it’s no surprise that the aforementioned “Baby’s Arms” is effective as track one.

Vile easing into this pocket is where he sounds the most comfortable. On “Runner-Ups,” he recycles lyrics from God is Saying This to You track “Red Apples,” a trick he does kind of often. Different in practice but similar in effect to Dan Bejar’s brainy self-referencing. Even better is “Peeping Tomboy,” where Vile quietly muses. “I don’t wanna give up, but I kinda wanna lie down…But not sleep, just… rest.” The song features Vile at his most focused musically and his best lyrically, which is saying a lot for a lyricist who’s always been resolutely above-average.

All-in-all, Smoke Ring for My Halo is on the same plain as his Matador debut, Childish Prodigy. A well-rounded effort from a songwriter slowly honing his craft, highlighted by three or four career highlights and marked with his penchant for wandering and ambling. It’s not a perfect record by any stretch of the imagination, but imperfection is a part of Kurt Vile’s charm, the smoke ring hovering above his head.

Download:
MP3: Kurt Vile-“Jesus Fever”