Saturday, April 2, 2011

Kurt Vile- Smoke Ring For My Halo (2011)

Recommended If You Like: The War on Drugs, Lou Reed, Ducktails, Cass McCombs, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young

It’s so interesting to trace the evolution of music from the rock giants of the 60s and 70s to the bands we know and love today. One can hear the rich harmonies of The Beach Boys in the psychedelic pop of Animal Collective or the spacey experimentation of David Bowie in the colorful indie pop of Wolf Parade. But for as much as they’re worth, those influences are often subtle. They are simply ingredients used for constructing a final product that is new and fresh. However crucial baking powder may be to making a cake, it is no longer recognizable when our pastry comes out of the oven.

Rarely can an album be heavily indebted to and celebratory of its influences while managing to sound so contemporary and original. Luckily for us, Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo is one of those albums. Philadelphia guitarist Kurt Vile began his rise to prominence with the band The War on Drugs, a band I described as “Bob Dylan if he were shoegaze.” Despite the reaction that description elicited from someone (I believe it was, “that sounds awful”), I stand by it. On the band’s debut LP Wagonwheel Blues, frontman Adam Granduciel’s frantic delivery evokes Dylan’s overstuffed verses on albums like Bringing It All Back Home, while the music itself sounds more like My Bloody Valentine if they had been raised on classic rock. Vile’s solo albums prior to Smoke Ring for My Halo took cues mostly from The War on Drugs' formula, though they have a much more distinct singer-songwriter feel. You could definitely sense that Vile had more control, that the vision was his. But they were also riddled with inconsistency and a lack of focus. Although “Freeway” and “Freak Train” are undeniably two of Vile’s best songs (the former is one of my favorite songs of all time and perhaps Vile’s crowning achievement), the albums they are on, Constant Hitmaker and Childish Prodigy respectively, are tedious affairs, full of psych-folk variations that often go nowhere. Smoke Ring for My Halo exhibits an unprecedented clarity and confidence not found in Vile’s earlier work.