With the success of Kurt Vile’s album earlier this year, Smoke Ring for My Halo, his new EP sure seems like a victory lap. It probably doesn’t help that the CD version is packaged with a new, special edition of Smoke Ring coming just eight months after its initial release.
But upon hearing So Outta Reach, it becomes clear this set is something more than that. Vile’s EPs and mini-albums have always been interesting juxtapositions to his more cohesive records. They’re often places for him to explore bigger soundscapes and new textures — see God Is Saying This to You or Square Shells — but So Outta Reach breaks that trend. Instead it is six fully formed and excellent songs, each one as developed and deeply layered as the next. At nearly a half-hour, the set is both ambitious and generous, and reminds us of the greatness of Smoke Ring without retreading its sound.
So Outta Reach plays like a brief yet long shadow cast by the much brighter album that preceded it. Where Vile’s other 2011 release toned down the crunch of 2009’s Childish Prodigy into something cleaner and more rippling, this EP looks at the darker side of that shimmer. “A Creature” is, in one way, exactly the kind of finger-picked gem that would end up on any of Vile’s previous records. But faint organs couch it in a chilly darkness we don’t hear from him too often. “Ain’t got time for asking any questions,” he groans, even as the tune sounds wandering and lost all around him. “It’s Alright,” the best song here, coats Vile’s acoustic with distant whirring atmospherics, tom-heavy drum work, and bending electric guitars to create thick layers of roiling texture. It exists between the buzz of his early work and the muted sheen of Smoke Ring, and makes the most of that limbo.
“Life’s a Beach” — which really has two versions here, one of them listed as the title track — is the closest thing to what’s come before. The guitar work is bright and hazy, and Vile shrugs off the goofy titular saying with his usualy smoky deadpan. The two versions are good but represent things we’ve already heard from Vile, so that they pale in comparison to, say, the buzzing overcast feel of “Laughing Stock” or the bluesy stomp of “Downbound Train,” two songs that show Vile and his latest crew of Violators sounding more like a raucous, cohesive band than they ever have.
Vile has officially established himself as one of our more exciting and determined songwriters working, so even if this were a victory lap, it’d be hard earned. But what we also know about Vile is that he is prolific and constantly searching for a new twist, and the moody dark of So Outta Reach is the newest in his series of increasingly fascinating sonic shifts. It draws from the haze of its predecessor and inverts it in expansive and compelling ways. Even if you’ve got Smoke Ring for My Halo, go get this one (it will be available as its own vinyl pressing), because this thing is way more than just some tacked-on companion piece.