It’s easy to get the impression that if Kurt Vile wasn’t making music, he’d be lying on his back thinking about making music. Such is the lackadaisical grace of Smoke Ring For My Halo. It’s a modern journey-man’s slacker album, caught between the couch and the stage, the road and the floor.
On his fourth go-round, second for Matador, Vile has turned in a seamless collection of songs that rise above the simple singer/songwriter tag. Backed by his band, The Violators, Vile takes an even, melody-driven, lo-fi approach to his songs. A mood is created and filled, whether holding court on the synth-treated folk-in-space sweetness of “Baby’s Arms” or stretching his legs with the Violators on the loose, sneering rock of “Puppet To The Man”, nothing sounds out of place.
Perfecting the jaded 70’s rock troubadour catching his breath and counting back the tales on “On Tour” (“I wanna write my whole life right down/burn it right down to the ground”) or taking on Neil Young circa On The Beach with “Society Is My Friend”, writing his own “Vampire Blues” (“Society is my friend/he makes me lie down in a cool bloodbath”), Vile casts himself as the weary, disillusioned outsider, finding beauty in the right places and railing against common causes. It’s a well-trodden path for an American songwriter, but Vile is just weird enough, and the music so beautifully delivered, for it to appear new.
It’s in the use of a variety of synths and keys on Smoke Ring… in particular on “On Tour” and “Society Is My Friend” that softens up Vile’s laconic Philadelphia, by way of Tom Petty, drawl giving a drifting, drifters vibe to the album. It’s a step up from the earnest alt-country scene that loses itself in its own grandeur and poise, writing songs that are too dense to dissect and impossible to connect with. Like on the oddly Fleet Foxes-esque “Runners Up”, “My best friend’s long gone/but I got runner ups, shhyeeah”, Vile is the kinda guy you’d enjoy having around, and when he shiftlessly half-sings, half-whines “I don’t wanna work/but I don’t wanna sit around/all day frowning” on the finger-picked blues of “Peeping Tomboy”, you know exactly what he means.
Vile is the equivalent of the 90’s indie slacker icon unwillingly thrust into the 21st century, but he manages to present himself with more vision and insight than his forebears. Whether or not we needed one is a moot point, but with Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile has offered a compelling case.
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