Back in October of 2009, Kurt Vile was an up-and-coming lo-fi, indie rock singer-songwriter who’d just released his third studio album and first with Matador Records – home to the likes of some of his biggest fans: Sonic Youth and Wild Flag. But Childish Prodigy was just a precursor to the motherload that was Smoke Ring for My Halo – one of the most critically acclaimed LPs of 2011.
Smoke Ring impressed with its ability to remain catchy while exploring a number of disparate musical styles. But Vile’s cool voice had a twang and swagger to it that held the collection together. And indie legends and label-mates Thurston Moore and Carrie Brownstein were so knocked out by Kurt that they asked him to open for their bands.
So, following the success of Smoke Ring, Vile has a rather daunting task before him with his new album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. Because seemingly every indie fan on the planet has heard of him, Vile doesn’t have the surprise factor on his side. Indeed, indie geeks won’t slap themselves on the forehead in delight when they hear the new songs. They already expect too much of Vile.
The title track kicks off the new record, with Vile’s first-rate voice of full display – and he uses it well to deliver a melody that’s as catchy as anything on Smoke Ring. The guitars and general production are cleaner and less lo-fi as they are throughout Wakin, and its great to hear Vile try to stretch things out. The track is nine-minutes long, the second half taken up with an excellent jam that showcases acoustic and electric guitar interplay.
Other long tracks on Wakin – “Was All Talk,” “Girl Called Alex,” “Too Hard,” “Air Bud,” and “Goldtone” – are lazy rockers that demonstrate Vile’s debt to J Mascis and Neil Young. “Alex,” however, is too mellow for its own good – which is proof that if you want to conjure the spirits of J and Neil, you’d better be as exciting as they are, and Vile just isn’t on this track.
Despite its pretty, country-inflexed picking, “Too Hard” suffers the same fate. And 10+-minute album closer “Goldtone,” which forms the apex of Wakin and the last of the long songs, makes Vile seem – I hate to say it – rather pretentious. Vile’s tale of how he’d rather search for new sounds than smoke pot is long-winded and unintentionally hilarious because most likely only stoners could appreciate a song like this.
As a long jam, “Was All Talk” fares a lot better, simply because of its excellent dynamics and arrangement. Fast beats compete with some great guitar work, so that despite its equally relaxed feel, it generates excitement. In a similar way, “Air Bud” uses synths to underpin an excellent and creative vocal line – and acoustic and electric guitars add jangly texture. And the song climaxes with what’s perhaps Vile’s best use of electronics.
The shorter songs on Wakin are – for the most part – better than its stretched-out tunes. But this is problematic, especially because these songs are so stylistically similar to Smoke Ring.
If the long tracks are Vile’s attempt to evolve, then the short tracks are where he plays it safe.
“KV Crimes,” for instance, is so much better than most of the extended jams that one wonders whether Vile really can evolve. Its distorted, country-rock guitar riff and solo, memorable melody, cowbell (yes!), and Mascis-influenced vocals make for an excellent song. But what’s new here?
Other notable short songs – “Shame Chamber” and “Snowflakes Are Dancing” – remind you of everything that was terrific about Smoke Ring. They’re melodically infectious and feature exciting arrangements and guitar playing – but, again, what’s new here?
Wakin on a Pretty Daze doesn’t live up to the expectations of Smoke Ring for My Halo, mainly because Vile is trying out new stuff. But he’s not Neil Young yet – and this is a necessary transitional album that should interest his fans but probably won’t earn him many new ones.