Smile Politely

Kurt Vile: Guitar guru for a new generation

If you’re a fan of Kurt Vile’s music then maybe you’ve imagined a similar scene: Long-haired Kurt, holed up in a dim basement room with a four-track rolling, thick cloud hanging in the air, and absolutely incredible guitar tracks being laid down. A drummer comes over, plays for a while, and a few months later Smoke Ring For My Halo comes out. I can’t help but conjure something mythic like that.

And that may not be so far from the truth. But it elides a few interesting things about Kurt Vile. It skips the fact that Vile claims that, despite the stoner vibe, he never touches the stuff. Vile is also a self-proclaimed family man. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two kids has a hard time being out on the road for too long. He’s also in the midst of a long and productive bromance. He co-founded the band The War On Drugs with his best friend Adam Granduciel. Vile played and toured on the band’s first record, Wagon Wheel Blues (2008), and Granduciel played on Vile’s first, Constant Hitmaker (2008), as well. Kind of sweet, right? Two best buds, both at the beginning of important careers as musicians, their friendship, the only reliable constant. Sounds like a pilot from an 80s sitcom. 

You don’t hear the words “guitar genius” tossed around all that often these days, but you hear it when folks talk about Kurt Vile. But those words hangs differently on Vile—they hang on him like one of those over-sized scratchy Baja hoodies you can buy in San Diego. He’s been called “lackadaisical”, and maybe it’s because Kurt Vile records mix those two ideas masterfully. He’s a genius but he makes it sound like he’s in a room in his basement. Said a bit differently, Kurt Vile records are great because they manage to squeeze together the seemingly paradoxical ideals of hard-won virtuosity and a state of happy carelessness.

But that wouldn’t really be enough to merit genius, would it? Virtuosos always make it look easy. No, Kurt Vile has stumbled with precision into a creative space that’s been developing for several years. Speculating here, but it seems to consist of those who, at some point in their 1990s adolescence got completely washed out by that scene (too much drama) and opted instead to put down more stable roots. Dylan and Hendrix are lodestars for wandering teenage ears but from there, at least for this group, it’s clear that Dad’s Springsteen and Mom’s Petty records (and maybe Uncle Bob’s Grateful Dead stash) made their way into heavy rotation. Those kids—Vile and Granduciel among them, but also bands like Phosphorescent and Foxygen—are now making records that I predict will be grouped together as a “movement” in much the same way alt-country was 15 years ago. It needs a name, though: New “psychedelic” or “hypno-rock” as I’ve heard it referred to in some places doesn’t really do the movement justice. And the bands are all too “lackadaisical” to care much about developing that new mythos, but again, something is definitely congealing.

You should probably go listen to this album. Like, right now.

Ahead of them all is Kurt Vile. His 2013 record Walkin on a Pretty Daze is equal parts day-at-the-beach and road record. In fact, the third track “Was All Talk” could have easily taken the iconic place of “Cruel Summer” during the beach montage in the original Karate Kid. Not that it sounds anything like that tune, it just perfectly captures the youthful intensity that promises the potential of new love, beach soccer, motorcycle gangs, and a fist fight… all in a single day. That quality aptly sums up the record. It’s an invitation to be alive, to pay attention, to be bored but to anticipate something amazing. It’s a ride the back of a pick-up truck.


Kurt Vile and the Violators play Pygmalion this Friday night at the Urbana Civic Center Outdoor Annex with Dawes and Johnathan Rice. The show starts at 7:30 and Vile is on at 10 p.m. Don’t miss it. 

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