Kurt Vile a songwriter ‘in total control of his art’
– by Cole MacKinnon
Right from opening track “Baby’s Arms” onwards, it’s clear that Smoke Ring For My Halo, the latest release from Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile, was crafted by a songwriter in total control of his art. There are no rousing, pick-me-up choruses or unnecessary embellishments; this is a mature, focused collection of songs from by a musician who knows what he wants to hear. For the first-time listener, Smoke Ring is somewhat of an inscrutable play-through; there’s a lot of rambling storytelling, and what sometimes seems like a conscious aversion of anything catchy in the vocal melodies department. Luckily, the songs hold their own, and then some.
Vile’s touring band, The Violators, flesh out the snappier numbers in fine fashion; from the acoustic-driven, no-frills groove of “In My Time” to the bluesy licks poking out from the corners of the mix in “Puppet To The Man,” and “Jesus Fever”, there is something of a Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers-meets-Wilco sensibility at work. Elsewhere, Smoke Ring explores lonely fingerpicking (“Runner-Ups”), dreamy, Springsteen-shoegaze (“Society Is My Friend”), and the buzzy warmth of six-minute closer, “Ghost Town”, where waves of piano and guitar shimmer hazily, then fade, leaving Vile to close out the song alone. When he sings “Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes/I don’t pay ‘em any mind/Then again, I guess it ain’t always that way”, there’s a finality and quiet resignation to his delivery, as if he has just read aloud a confession.
There is some downtime in the latter half of the record; the wandering, out-of-tune vocals in “Peeping Tom” and “Runner-Ups” are honest, but slightly grating, and the title track never really picks up enough steam to get interesting. These are minor gripes; the rawness and vulnerability of the performances are at the core of Smoke Ring For My Halo’s charm. In “On Tour”, Vile proclaims “I wanna sing at the top of my lungs for fun/scream annoyingly/cause that’s just me being me /being free”, and with his latest record, he is definitely Vile being Vile, lonesome troubadour, far-reaching in his scope, modest in his genius.