[sic] Magazine

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

With Conor Oberst perhaps on the wane, or, at least hanging up his Bright Eyes , the cognoscenti have jumped ship – their chosen vessel: that of “in” troubadour Kurt Vile . Earning his spurs in all the right places (at the incandescent Woodsist and Mexican Summer labels amongst others), and touring alongside all the right people (with Ariel Pink , Sonic Youth , Big Star , The National and Dinosaur Jr amongst others), this young Philadephian – remarkably the youngest of ten siblings – now presents his second blue-collar album on Matador and his fourth overall. And, by the sound of it, Smoke Ring For My Halo looks like going stratospheric.

Formerly guitarist in the all-American, “heartland” rock outfit The War On Drugs , this ex-forklift driver’s last LP, Childish Prodigy , seems in retrospect a bridge, rather than evolutionary step between Vile’s stoned, snotty lo-fi beginnings and today’s pedal-free, honest-rock incarnate. “I don’t wanna change, but I don’t wanna stay the same” he protests on the homely recording “Peeping Tomboy”. Yet, Vile has done both. Despite losing 2009’s mid-fi echo and feedback – and thus arguably some of that period’s appeal – this is an album nevertheless conceived in a grubby bedroom, but one with its eyes on the horizon, one destined for grander things. Successfully finding an alternative middle ground, Smoke Ring For My Halo scrubs up well, but it isn’t clean – it’s not just cigarette smoke crowding to make that halo you know.

Resolutely bred on a diet of Tom Petty and Bob Seger , Vile sets himself apart from other contemporary FM rockers – think the swollen sonics of the current Band Of Horses set-up – with the help of a cast of many. This cast includes Meg Baird of whispy folksters Espers on backing vocal for the atmospheric album opener “Baby’s Arms”, as well as his regular band The Violaters who are never far away. And the result, Smoke Ring For My Halo , is an offhand classic – in the sense that it could have been delivered off the cuff anytime in the last forty years. That it would have caused ripples in the rock pond at any time in that period is a credit to Vile alone.

As American then as Springsteen and Dylan, but studiously in charge of his own brand of pessimism, Smoke Ring For My Halo ranges widely, freewheeling between carefully plucked progressions and Neil Young ‘s politicised strumming. Accordingly, Vile draws out his sneer across power chords in the iconic-sounding “Puppet To The Man”. Though restrained in its acoustic delivery, the subtly seething “Runner Ups” is equally impressive. Whereas, more overtly gentle inclusions such as Mary Lattimore ‘s harp, as heard on the persuasive strains of “On Tour”, add candid depth, melancholy and balance to the collection.

What’s best though is that despite its obvious quality Smoke Ring For My Halo doesn’t feel like the finished article. Vile has more to come. Make room for another tattoo – on this form you’re going to want to keep that one even closer to your heart.

Advised downloads: “Puppet To The Man” and “Runner Ups”.

~Smoke Ring For My Halo is out now on Matador .~