Kurt Vile has made a cottage industry out of his warped folk-rock, releasing a treasure trove of full-lengths, EPs, singles, 7-inches, and cassettes over the past three years. They’re all a varying degree of quality — the Philly songwriter hasn’t met a song fragment he doesn’t want to put to tape — but his music is united by his two strongest suits: his expert guitar-playing and his singular voice. Smoke Ring For My Halo is Vile’s fourth record to date and his strongest yet. While he still displays some maddening inconsistencies, Vile hits some truly strident highpoints that bode well for the future.
There’s long been a duality to Vile’s music—one moment he’s slinging audacious six-string solos with his awesomely named backing group, the Violators, the next he’s in full-on folk troubadour mode. His first two full-lengths reflected this, with 2008’s Constant Hitmaker living up to its pop-rock claim, while 2009’s God Is Saying This To You featured his trademark acoustic ruminations. But his Matador debut, Childish Prodigy, packaged these two sides together, and Smoke Ring picks up where he left off.
Gone is the bedroom-recorded haze of Vile’s past releases. Here, John Agnello produces, a wise choice given his resume: records by Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and the Hold Steady all boast his name, and his steady guidance really makes Vile’s songs burn with intensity. The Violators’ precise groove on “Puppet To The Man” allows Vile to be out front with his rambling sneer, and Agnello goes for the less-is-more approach, capturing the band within a warm atmosphere.
Elsewere, Vile puts his mind to his intricate fingerpicked guitar style. Opener “Baby’s Arms” is a testament to his skill as both a songwriter and performer. He really sells the record’s best melody with his drawn-out warble: “there’s been but one true loooove/ In my baaaaaby’s aaaaaaarmmmms.” The electronics bubbling underneath add so much depth that he repeats the trick a few times, like on the propulsive and soaring “Society Is My Friend” or the dreamy “On Tour.”
But a few of the hats Vile tries on don’t fit quite as well. “Jesus Fever” and “In My Time” are two sides of the same coin: pleasantly soft pop-rock numbers that might have worked better as lo-fi demos. With the increased fidelity, oddly enough, the songs lose their carefree nature. Likewise, the back half suffers from too many acoustic numbers, with “Peeping Tom” even going so far as to pilfer part of the stellar melody from the far superior “My Sympathy” off God Is Saying This To You. The similarities between a lot of these songs are frustrating. He can be a near-perfect songwriter, but he often recycles his melodic ideas when he doesn’t need to.
He’s got some growing pains, but that’s what makes Vile so interesting. His work is definitely on an upward trajectory, provided that he’s still willing to experiment with his sound. It’s easy to see Smoke Ring being remembered as the stepping stone to a transcendent piece of work in Vile’s discography.