Sunday, August 4, 2013

album review: 'wakin on a pretty daze' by kurt vile (RETRO REVIEW)

Believe it or not, I don't go into albums looking to hate them or bash them. One of the reasons I review a lot of material is because I'm looking to be surprised or caught off-guard by something of shockingly good quality. I want to find that special album that blows my mind in a dozen conceivable ways. And more importantly, to quote Abed from Community, 'I like liking things'. Hell, at the beginning of the year, you probably couldn't have told me that one of the most pleasant surprises of the year was a 4-part album from a white female rapper called Skitszo, but Colette Carr's debut album was actually surprisingly decent.

That being said, it's extremely difficult to not immediately form an opinion in your mind about what an act will sound like when you first hear about them, and I'll admit that can adjust your expectations in one way or another. I'll admit that going into critically-acclaimed indie rock albums, I tend to have a sharper critical opinion than, say, a Backstreet Boys album. And knowing my own tastes, if anything, makes it all the worse, as my ability to prejudge material is all the sharper.

So when I heard about Kurt Vile's new album, it was hard not to immediately cast more than a few judgments on the guy without even hearing a single song. A critically acclaimed, Pitchfork-adored lo-fi indie rocker primarily on a laid-back guitar with hazy, borderline incomprehensible vocals and lyrics that could only pretend to make sense on a good day? You bet your ass i prejudged the hell out of this guy and very nearly decided to ignore this album entirely. As I've said before, I don't have a lot of patience for white guys with acoustic guitars, and if they're half-stoned or have pretensions to depth, that limited amount of patience drops to a critical low. And sure, there's Beck, but he proved to have extraordinary amounts of talent, both in instrumentation and songwriting (to say nothing of his particular brand of insanity), and I can't say many of the lo-fi acts that followed in his wake did much to blow me out of the water.

And so before reviewing Kurt Vile's Wakin On A Pretty Daze, an album title that just screamed stoner indie rock in the worst possible way, I took a deep breath and plowed through this guy's discography, prepared for song after song of bland, pretentious nothing that I'd be able to jettison out my mental airlock the second it was over.

I didn't get that, and believe me, that was as much of a surprise as anything. Even as I say this, I'm still a little flummoxed why Kurt Vile works while so many other act like him have either bored or infuriated me. And while I wouldn't quite call myself a fan of his material, I found myself liking much more of his songs than I actively disliked.

Let's start with the songwriting, which is arguably the spot I would have come down hardest if he had been any of his contemporaries - and while there is a certain profundity that shows up in his material, there were more nuggets of insight in his ramblings than I expected. It's almost impossible to know how many levels of irony or sarcasm Kurt Vile might be operating on, which adds a layer of ambiguity to his presentation I found intriguing. On top of that, he doesn't tend to leap into the trap of acoustic love songs - hell, I don't even think Kurt Vile could record a truly effective love song even if he tried. Most of that comes down to his delivery, which I would describe as something of a cross between Beck and Wayne Coyne if the latter was actively smoking pot over dropping acid. And while he does abuse vocal affects and reverb more than most, it contributes excellently to a certain atmosphere that completely justifies Kurt Vile's appeal.

You see, I'd almost hesitate to call Kurt Vile an acoustic act - a lot of his material might have roots in acoustic rhythmic guitar, but it is often swallowed up in distortion and static that permeates the track, creating a rich expansiveness that still manages to feel organic and real. It may flirt with psychedelia at points, but that's only to suit the hazy, dusty feel of the tracks. Many critics have drawn connections between Vile and the gritty guitar-based singer-songwriters of the 60s and early 70s, and I can definitely buy into that aesthetic, particularly when it feels as authentic as it does.

And, of course, it helps that Kurt Vile is a gifted instrumentalist and songwriter all on his own. The guitar lines are often mesmerizingly simple, but contain enough shifts and complexity to keep me wanting more, and the natural free-flowing nature of the writing is a perfect fit for it. I'm reminded of Kacey Musgraves in a very good way, and like with her, they share the same affection for downbeat, rural Americana that feels all too real, particularly because Vile doesn't hold back from including himself in his message. It feels like the events in Vile's songwriting could have really happened to him, or are thoughts coming from a real place, and that does wonders for the atmosphere of the album.

That being said, I do have my gripes with Kurt Vile, particularly considering the fact he seems to be losing some of that richer instrumental texture with more recent albums. The distortion is peeled back, the vocals are cleaner, everything feels that much more polished, and I don't feel that's the greatest choice for preserving the atmosphere. But on the other hand, it does do wonders for exposing the smarter elements of Vile's songwriting, which I do appreciate, even though I wish more of that distorted grit would return. So does Wakin On A Pretty Daze deliver on that?

Youtube review after the jump

Well, for the most part, yes. In terms of my summer retrospective reviews, this is probably the album thus far that I like the most. It's not phenomenal and it's not going to change anyone's life, but Kurt Vile's newest release is a good, often times great album. In terms of a relaxing, smooth summer record, you're not going to find many better than Wakin On A Pretty Daze.

It's definitely a fitting title. For starters, this might just be Kurt Vile's most polished, 'clean' work to date, with the majority of the distortion shoved off to the background. I'll be completely honest, I'm not the biggest fan of this direction - some of the texture is lost - but Vile still manages to create the same expansive sounds and the same dusty ambience all the same. If I was to nitpick, I'd say his strident plucking is missed on the guitar, but I understand why it's been muted. There's very little momentum and exuberance to this album, and when it does come, it's in spurts and little variations on the formula. The majority of the tracks really do flow together in a summer daze, and while Vile's voice is cleaner and closer to the top of the mix than it's ever been before, you can almost forget he's singing.

Of course, you don't want to forget the lyrics, because for the most part, Kurt Vile's songwriting is still strong as ever. The album is at its best when it mulls in Vile's drifting malaise, which sounds like stoned wisdom but surprisingly isn't. His opening track, 'Wakin On A Pretty Day' is a song about burnout that paints Vile in an uncompromising light, showing both the shallowness and deep underlying sadness in it all. To draw an apt comparison, it's 'Margaritaville' as sung by a disaffected stoner, and like Jimmy Buffett's masterpiece, I wouldn't be surprised if most people missed the point. The hilarious thing is that Vile is very acutely aware that many have painted him in the role of the 'burnout savant' and have summarily dismissed his words as nonsense, and he lashes out against it in 'Was All Talk' and 'Goldtone', both of which show off some excellent songwriting and some insight into Vile himself. What many have mistaken as the mumbling of a Gen-X washout are closer in line to the stream-of-conscience verse of a beat poet, and it's a testament to Vile's talent that he actually manages to say something. 'Pure Pain' uses a musical and lyrical juxtaposition between the thrill of love and the knowledge that it'll eventually fall apart, and 'Girl Called Alex' shows Vile's longing for said girl to run away with him, yet it'd only be a 'sportscar illusion' (a modernized version of 'The Graduate', if you will).

However, the critics who have lobbed the stoner label at Kurt Vile don't exactly have a dearth of evidence. Both 'Snowflakes Are Dancing' and 'Air Bud' are the sort of dazed, confused, borderline nonsense that sound like they'd only begin to make sense when high. And Vile's mumbling delivery and general failure to stay on tune does have some of that hazy confusion that only makes me wonder if Vile wasn't trying or was just completely baked. I reckon it was more of the former, because in combination with the significantly more contemporary love songs, I can't help but feel that Kurt Vile was running on autopilot a bit here. Yeah, they aren't bad, but between Vile's unflinching honesty about his failings and his half-hearted attempts at romance, songs like 'Too Hard' don't stick the landing.

Part of the issue with that, of course, is the album's length. Most of the songs on this album are more than four minutes long, and while the album shockingly doesn't feel indulgent, it does feel a little languid and drawn-out. Without that clear narrative throughline, the added length only serves to add to that listless summer daze the album cultivates. And sure, the atmosphere is still solid, but I feel that more sparks of wit and a bit of a tighter focus could have only enhanced this album's replay value. In comparison to Kacey Musgraves' biting songwriting and desperate, emotionally-charged edge, Kurt Vile never quite rises up beyond his comfort zone.

All of that being said, I did really like Kurt Vile's Wakin In A Pretty Daze, and would recommend it. It's not perfect, and I can already tell you that those who were looking for a bit more of a fuzzy, static-filled edge are going to be disappointed, but Kurt Vile's strong songwriting mostly redeems this. I'll definitely agree with the sentiment that it's the most 'laid-back' album of the summer thus far, and the best thing about it is the fact that throughout most of the album, Vile creates mellow music that shows all of its flaws and failings as well as its strengths.

John Mayer, Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz... this is how you do it.

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