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CD Review: Kurt Vile - "Smoke Ring for My Halo"

April 19, 2011
Kurt Vile
Smoke Ring for My Halo
Matador


With his hazy production predilections and a laconic vocal demeanor akin to basement Neil Young, Kurt Vile has a way of making the simplest folk-rock architecture beautiful, fresh, and darkly mysterious. Those seeking easy comparisons could find antecedents in the gentler side of the Velvet Underground, Neil Young’s most internal solo work, and even the dreamy pop of My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. But Vile’s work feels too intimate, immediate, and personal to fall entirely under any such generalizations. And the songs of Smoke Ring for My Halo (co-produced with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. producer John Agnello) have a way of rewarding you—and sinking their hooks into you—like unexpected wisdom from a stranger at a bar.

The characters in Vile’s oblique lyrics often seem brokenhearted, obsessed, alone, and making do with little more than a black sense of humor on their side. (Those who have likened Vile to a subterranean Springsteen may be onto something here.) And in a beautiful display of how true bands, arrangers, and songwriters work, Vile, his band the Violators, and a host of guests shape stark-but-vivid worlds for Vile’s suburban-noir protagonists with beguiling, high-lonesome textures.

Vile and guitarists Jesse Trbovich and Adam Granduciel, forego 6-string histrionics in favor of deftly fingerpicked acoustic melodies, echo-laden outer-space transmissions, and locomotive rhythms that leave the songs spacious and wide open for the wandering, complex, and daydreaming characters in the tunes. The expansive arrangements also leave space for the lovely and super-evocative colors and atmospheres contributed by harpist Mary Lattimore ( “On Tour” and “Ghost Town”), Espers’ Meg Baird (backing vocals on “Baby’s Arms”) and Blues Control’s ace multi-instrumentalist Lea Cho.

Sedate, but overflowing with moods, sweet and melancholic melodies, and engaging lyrical narratives, Smoke Ring for My Halo, is a tough and tender gem of an LP and an engaging evolution for one of the pop underground’s finest songwriters.