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Schooled In Song
Kurt Vile follows in the rugged, well-crafted tradition of the singer/songwriter
There are many things you can do with a guitar, and Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile does most of the best of them. His 13 songs (or 14 with the slow-mo version of “Freeway”) on last year’s Constant Hitmaker slip from barely-there solo pieces (“Classic Rock In Spring”) to finger-picked Fahey-isms (“Slow Talkers”) and exhalations of pure atmosphere (“Trumpets In Summer”); on the full-band Kurt Vile & the Violators The Hunchback EP, they become panting monsters like Spacemen 3 aligned behind the powerful deadpan of J Mascis (“Good Lookin’ Out”).
There are enough parts in there to assemble several self-contained mini bands—one for loud Vile, soft Vile, wild Vile, sad Vile and so on—each of which could split off on its own to make some of the best independent albums of any recent year. But Vile slides without hesitation between modes and moods. He laughs off anyone thinking he’s the next Bob Dylan, but he has something of the same fearlessness and strength of character as Dylan, who somersaulted through folk, rock & roll, Nashville country, gospel, and blues and made sure his voice was always still recognizable.
“He took chances,” Vile says. “He was a role model for anyone who wants to take music seriously.”
Even before signing this spring to Matador (whose head Gerard Cosloy said he was pleased “perhaps more than ever before in label history” to make Vile labelmates with Stephen Malkmus, Sonic Youth and Lou Reed) for his soon-to-be-released Childish Prodigy, Vile came attached to names of some of the greatest American naturals—not just Dylan, but also Bruce Springsteen (whose cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” suggests a certain surreptitious compatibility with Vile’s echoplexed aesthetic) and Tom Petty, who linked the instantly energetic rock & roll spirit of ’56 with the sense of self and sadness that made the ’70s something of the morning-after decade.
With mostly delay, guitar and occasional drum machine, Vile doesn’t much share that AOR sound, though you can hear an echo of classic pop radio in his “Freeway” the same way you can hear it in the Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again” or Eno’s “King’s Lead Hat.” (It’s that teenage velocity that goes all the way back to “Maybelline”—Vile’s got a “freeway in mind, so let go of my head!”) But he does sound just as effortless and honest. His music seems less constructed than discovered, lifted uninterrupted from daydream to tape deck. “The songs just fall off him,” as the phrase goes.
He says he knew he needed to be a musician sometime between the day his dad gave him his first banjo—as befits a family with a surname perfect for the Anthology of American Folk Music, the Viles have a healthy respect for bluegrass—and the day he made his first cassette tape.
“Obviously I had a lot of work to do,” he remembers thinking. So he became an accomplished and confident guitarist and singer; followed his girlfriend to Boston, where she was in grad school; learned to drive a forklift (as perhaps obliquely chronicled in “Space Forklift,” where Vile sees his “own lonely reflection within the very girl I love”); and developed into a relentless home recorder, finishing six full CD-Rs of songs before carefully culling them for a national release with Hitmaker on Gulcher last year.
Until Childish Prodigy comes out, Hitmaker remains—and shines—as Vile’s definitive work, a zigzag album that touches joy and loneliness and sadness and wildness and cheerful bedroom-bound goofiness. (“Like a dog on a telephone, there is nonsense sustaining—ah, ah!”) He held out for the best possible label he could get, he says, and he got it when he signed with Matador. He talks about where he is now—not lost on tour on the way out of Baltimore, but where he really is now—with the cautious pride of someone who has touched and tested every detail himself. (He’s always been good with his hands, he says—anything where he can let his head go while they do their own work.)
“The plan,” he says, “was to get to this point. And it’s all happening!”