With the release of a new tribute album to Nick Drake’s music, NPR staff writer and LA Times contributor Ann Powers wrote “Drake’s albums revealed me to myself as a listener.” Though extremely posthumously, Nick Drake has become one of those icons in music that transcended flavor of the week to become a milestone of the age. Guitar composition extraordinaire Kurt Vile, now on his fifth solo release, sits at a certain kind of crossroads at this point. His short time with The War on Drugs and his most recent two albums Smoke Ring For My Halo and the new Wakin on a Pretty Daze have propelled him quickly to the top of the food chain for his brand of sepia toned guitar centered Americana. He pulls from milestones like Tom Petty, Wilco, R.E.M., Neil Young, and fellow Matador signed Pavement to name a few. He could easily be pegged as a flavor of the week for how quickly his status has catapulted in the indie scene, but deeper listens to his music leads to this feeling of his music always being on the tip of your tongue but never quite being able to put his style under your thumb. This is a quality of milestones.
Vile’s entire stardom seems to stem from his regular guy persona. Hyperbole abusing writers call his music “epic,” “voice of the generation,” “timeless.” But interviews of the man, not to mention examination of his lyrics, paint an image of a homebody who has worked through anxiety and setbacks to be now happily married, the proud father of two children, and finding himself pining for his Philadelphia stomping grounds everyday whilst on tour. He is content with his position in music: total nerd. He makes music because he loves to listen to music. He doesn’t have an edgy characteristic to push on his listeners or the media. He doesn’t dress up his image and risk dissociating his personality from his musical aspirations. Hell, the video accompanying his new single “Never Run Away” consists of a single camera on a tripod taping Vile listening to the vinyl edition on his own stereo in his own living room and playing with his daughter who blithely dances away with her zebra mask. Smile, little one! Your dad is a rockstar. Never mind the Drake likeness with his finger-picking prowess and subdued vocal delivery, Vile could easily be the Nick Drake character who actually made it in his own time and saved himself.
The inimitable “Baby’s Arms” from Smoke Ring For My Halo seems to encapsulate the general idea of Vile’s passionate and patient guitar driven lyrical adventures. His music is at once nostalgic, relate-able, and generally agreeable with a long drive. Wakin on a Pretty Daze continues in this vein of easy-going American rock with more density by default than a lot of his influences. With tracks from 3:22 to 10:26 in length, Vile has an expectation that listeners are in for the long haul. This album is over an hour long, clearly the product of a music nerd who genuinely desires his listeners to find something they can dig within. And though his tracks are long, they never overstay their welcome and never settle too long in one place. Layers are added consistently, melodies are embellished and evolve, the guitar work swells and thickens over more dramatic drumming as the tracks progress. Some tracks can go for minutes without lyrics, and when the vocals return it’s almost as if no time passed at all. Vile has been hailed as a guitar virtuoso and while he doesn’t play with the most taxing technique or (thankfully) the antiquated machismo of 80’s and 90’s guitar “legends,” the taste with which he writes these guitar ballads is indeed remarkable.
The album is gorgeously produced by John Agnello and supports the warm, unhurried nature of the music. With 25 years of experience in production including timeless records by Sonic Youth and Social Distortion, he provides a knowing hand in the mix. The guitars are kissed with drive and deepened with reverb. The drums are tactfully sharp and tight but with a bit of reverb just to mellow the rigidity with which they’re played. The bass is casual and a bit back in the mix, but on good speakers they come right through and the laid back nature of the rhythms allow for those long instrumental movements. The music is familiar but could easily be categorized as rock, folk, psychedelia, pop, or post-punk. That the record comes off as superb songwriting and great studio chops instead of blunt pastiche is a testament to Vile and Agnello’s teamwork.
While a reviewer is tempted to work through each track on this record, it wouldn’t be the most compelling read. Simply put, the tracks themselves lack enough personality and independence to stand alone or grab the attention of many listeners who require immediacy in their consumption. The whole reason this album is good is because the hour passes blissfully, easily, unpretentiously. Ironically, this is the same quality that prevents the album from hitting that “classic” level. The album passes with just enough vanilla that it’s solid. It’s reliable. It rides. But it doesn’t carry much attitude as a whole. A couple tracks could benefit from a bit more grit, a little more anxiety. The album is passionate, but also passionately passive aggressive at times.
Nick Drake’s music was transcendent for its rich sound, both in total and within each instrument independently. Vile’s music is similar for its cadence and density, but it would be too early to say that his music will attain that milestone label. However, both gentlemen’s music pulled from the previous 25 years leading to their contemporary scene. Both seem genuinely heartfelt and more interested in their music coming together than their status coming together. ut what if Vile can achieve the sustainability of Tom Petty, Neil Young, R.E.M.? He will have done in his lifetime what Drake could not: persist through the gauntlet that cuts away so many musicians, both good and bad, to become revered in his own time and allow for decades of artistic creativity. At 33, Vile has carved out a niche as a guitar visionary who looks both backwards and forwards to feed his singer-songwriter methods. And as we speak, Vile’s music is changing people’s listening sensibilities, revealing listeners to themselves, finding new appreciations they thought had become antiquated by the end of the 90’s.
Let us hope this sustains and (perhaps) expands to, dare I say, “epic” proportions? To become a “voice of the generation” in his own time? I think Vile must take a couple more ambitious steps forward from here. His music speaks to many but will suffer from being labelled mundane by a large body of listeners if he doesn’t inject a bit more attitude into his sound. But if he can merge the languid sentiment of his music with a little more flavor he just might be able to take his sweet time in becoming that role model, that milestone, for our contemporary rock scene.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl Senior Contributor