Record Review: Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo

Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My HaloKurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador, 3/8/11)

Kurt Vile: “Baby’s Arms”

[audio:|titles=Kurt Vile “Baby’s Arms”]

During the few years that he’s been putting out proper records, Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile has played equally the singer-songwriter and the free-form sonic tinkerer. He seems unwilling to force too much to happen in either capacity. He’s sincerely catchy but shy of being blatantly earnest. He’s tempted by the inviting fizzle of tape hiss, reverb, drum machines, and Casios, but can put a simple guitar part at the front when it suits him.

His new album, Smoke Ring For My Halo, is a lot more orderly than Constant Hitmaker (2008) or Childish Prodigy (2009). The frequent, fun instrumental twiddling of Hitmaker is just about entirely gone, and Prodigy‘s push toward rocking clarity continues in a mellow acoustic vein. It no longer sounds like each song was patched together in slightly different circumstances and varying qualities of tape. He achieves a new consistency on Smoke Ring and doesn’t strain himself to get there.

Smoke Ring makes it easy to get distracted, to drift in and out. Kurt sounds as if he wouldn’t take offense. That’s not because he’s noncommittal; it is because he slyly steers around the pangs of wisdom that young singer-songwriters often try to jam into their words. What profundity and wit you may find here is the kind that dribbles out of a guy’s mouth as he trails off in mid-sentence. Vile lets that stuff fall where it may, and he doesn’t try to make it look like there’s more of it than there really is. He takes his time letting it come out. As a result, the songs on Smoke Ring don’t quite overstay their welcome so much as loaf their way to the polite extent of it.

With that said, Vile has no shame about imposing good pop structure onto that posture — or non-posture, as it were. He constantly brings “Runner Ups” back to the half-lament “my best friend’s long-gone, but I’ve got runner-ups.” He doesn’t let on whether he knows how funny (and perhaps tragic) that is. And though he’s good at seeming to relax and greeting the good and the bad with the same acceptance, he does so in strong colors. His spectrum here goes from the actively relieved “In My Time” to the spooky “cold bloodbath” of “Society Is My Friend.”

He drifts through a range of rough-and-weary vocal styles, some with a nasal pinch that nearly makes you cringe in anticipation of another Bob Dylan impersonation (but don’t hold it against him, as it never actually gets close). So it helps that he doesn’t try to convince you that he’s learned everything. In the moments where you’d expect a lot of songwriters to try and yank out some head-spinning observation or weathered cliche, he evades by way of inertia. “In My Time” may be about looking back at youth, but it doesn’t try to offer any grand conclusions.

The arrangements find ways to keep up the previous albums’ tinkering while maintaining the dynamics from song to song. Along with an unobtrusive drum machine, acoustic and clean electric guitars double up on the album’s most pleasant track, “Jesus Fever.” Meanwhile, the title track goes for a warmer, also unobtrusive mix of tabla and tambourine. “Ghost Town” seems to keep all the instrumentation just a bit off to the side, which makes room for one of Vile’s better vocal performances to gently shine. Even the decisively tougher beat of “Puppet To The Man” doesn’t really break the flow the way that, say, “Freak Train” did on Childish Prodigy.

The album can leave you with the same feeling as Vile’s previous work: that there’s a ton of possibility here. His is a songwriting voice with a home-recorded feel that’s more about dimension than it is just white noise and reverb. Thankfully, it hasn’t lapsed into humorless cliché, but it has yet to get quite where it yearns to go. It’s also his most enjoyable record yet, and Vile certainly doesn’t do anything that spoils the promise of the songs. He just lets them grow memorable — or at least hummable — at his own deceptively nonchalant pace.

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