By Jennifer Graciano
Philadelphia's Kurt Vile has come a long way since his aptly titled debut “Constant Hitmaker” [2008, Gulcher Records/2009, Woodsist]. Where Vile’s first album seeped in psychedelic infused pop, his latest album, “Smoke Ring For My Halo,” is a polished piece with a downhearted boldness.
The opener, “Baby’s Arms,” plays like a lullaby with soft plucking and a gentle pace. It's quite static as Vile hardly shifts pitch as he croons: “I hide in my baby’s hands cause except for her, there just ain’t nothing to latch onto”-- lyrics that tug at your heart strings are strewn about “Smoke Ring..” and Vile executes them well.
Abandoning his usual bedroom recording style has done wonders for Vile; his fuzz laden sound has been traded in for a relatively glossy sheen on “Smoke Ring..” allowing his lyrical abilities to stand on their own, and for his silky voice to carry most of the weight on the album. We’re so used to his work being layered under a haze, his words rambling about in a mess, that it was hard to pick up what an excellent lyricist he is. “Smoke Ring..” is a straightforward album, Vile isn’t about to pull a fast one on us with production smoke and mirrors.
“Society Is My Friend” delves into some of the psychedelic/trance rock we’ve seen Vile play with before, but there’s not enough harmony between vocals and instruments here. This one comes off a bit confused, as if the vocals and music have been forced upon each other and are now vying for your attention. This isn’t the case for most songs on the album. In fact, this album is probably where Vile and the Violators (his touring band which add much needed life to his tunes) sound the best together. “In My Time” and the title track are perfect examples of where these components work well, they play off the other rather than butt heads.
Vile exercises his refined finger picking on “Runner Ups” alongside his downhearted drawl about his life being a “long running gag.” In all this it’s easy to be fooled into thinking there’s self-deprecating melancholy at work throughout--don‘t be. Tracks like “Puppet To The Man,” “Baby‘s Arms,” “On Tour,” (“I see through everyone/even my own self now”) and the sly humor in “Jesus Fever” let slip that Vile is more than fine.
I didn’t care for “Peeping Tomboy” or “On Tour” all that much. They’re both excellent as far as lyrics are concerned, true to Vile’s style, but that’s about it. I wanted to love them (especially “On Tour” which picks up in the last minute) but found both lacked something and began to feel stagnant much too quickly.
A perfect closer to “Smoke Ring..,” “Ghost Town” plays like a backing track of a western hero at the end of their prolific adventure as the Violators chime in to add essential backing to Vile’s chords until he’s left alone for the tail end. Just a man and his guitar.
“Smoke Ring..” is without a doubt catchy, but not in the same vein as Vile’s previous material. His latest has its fair share of (maybe more than fair) hooks that keep his voice stuck in your head for hours on end, but lack the psychedelic charm heard on “Childish Prodigy” [2009, Matador]. This different brand of Vile is a sweet surprise that has produced an album with a timeless feel about it and classic rock style. It’s obvious “Smoke Ring..” is successful as a collective for keeping it safe and hardly straying from its uniform traits: Vile’s groomed vocals, insatiable hooks that resonate and some otherworldly guitar skill. But what “Smoke Ring For My Halo” lacks in variety of technique is made up by Kurt Vile clearly mastering those few traits in this marvelous album.