Thursday, October 1, 2015

album review: 'b'lieve i'm goin down...' by kurt vile

I think I've been a bit unfair to Kurt Vile in the past. 

See, when I covered his album Wakin On A Pretty Daze in 2013, I was still very much in the learning curve when it came to album reviews, and finding an entry point into his woozy brand of half-stoned meandering rock music was tricky for me. I definitely found a lot to like about his knack for a solid hook, his fascination with smoky Americana, and his lyrics that knowingly walked the line of profound and asinine, depending on what level of irony you operated on. Where I initially took issue was how it seemed like with every record his textures were getting cleaner and more polished and losing some of the jangling momentum he had brought when he used to be a member of The War On Drugs - even though I'd agree with most that Childish Prodigy and Constant Hitmaker were uneven, I liked the rougher edges on those albums and they have some of my favourite cuts.

As such, by the time we reached the meandering and cleanest-to-date record Wakin On A Pretty Daze, I could appreciate the writing and a lot of the hazier melodies and hooks, but the cleaner production just didn't really gel as well as I liked, especially with some of the more tightly regimented electronic beats and pseudo-psychedelic textures. I missed the momentum and grit, and yet it seemed like with every record we were losing that, so when I heard that b'lieve i'm goin down was going to be even cleaner, I wasn't sure what I was going to get here, especially with buzz suggesting this album was emphasizing even a bit of a country sound. So okay, very different entry point than fuzzed-out psychedelia and lo-fi indie rock, I can work with this - so what did Kurt Vile deliver here?

Well, to some extent Kurt Vile delivered exactly what you'd expect - a meandering indie folk record with repetitious guitar licks that can be oddly hypnotic, spacey, half-coherent lyrics from Vile's lazy drawl, and the sort of textured, dusty atmosphere that could make those lyrics mean so much more. And even if it's less dirty and gritty than the past, there is something potent behind the darker, fuller melancholic tones... even if what that actually is can be difficult to quantify. In fact, I'd argue that Kurt Vile is at his best when he says as little as possible - which is arguably the point, because it really does resist analysis in an antifolk sort of way. 

So how do I feel about this album? Well, let's start with Kurt Vile himself - and I have to admit I've never been one that's been all that fascinated by his persona - half-stoned earnestness, his mind seemingly on a different plane than his body, and with so much self-awareness that it can be tricky to discern when he's being more actively sarcastic or ironic. I get the appeal - the same as that of the smartest guy in the room who always keeps his mouth shut for as long as possible, but it can wear a little thin when you realize his nuggets of real wisdom doesn't really add to much. More on this in a bit, but I think my bigger issue is that with every layer of vocal production and distortion peeled away, Kurt Vile really isn't a great singer. And sure, it's folk music, and it's not like Dylan was a great singer technically either, but whenever Kurt Vile pulls into his upper range, it can sound like he's reaching and not particularly good. 

Granted, you're not coming to a Kurt Vile project for his vocals, you're coming for the instrumentation and the production, where again there has been some changes but still a recognizable formula. Faded kickdrums, sandy cymbals, layers of acoustic and electric guitars to set up the squealing, textured arrangements, and often with one guitar providing that liquid or buzzing background for the songs to lend them that mistier groove. Of Kurt Vile's catalogue, this is probably one of his most sedate projects, but that doesn't mean there aren't some great songs to be mined from it - the low groove on 'Pretty Pimpin' is an infectious hook as the as we get a bit of smoky texture, the introduction of that circling banjo progression on the alt-country tinged 'I'm An Outlaw' is a great touch, as it adds that ramshackle appeal, the really deep kickdrum on 'Wheelhouse' as we get the layers of faded guitars, and the curdled acoustic darkness of 'Stand Inside', especially on the outro. And then there's 'Wild Imagination', with a sandy drum machine accenting an acoustic melody that I really did love... until I realize it was built from a near identical melodic foundation from '24 Frames' by Jason Isbell, a much better song. But putting that aside, the biggest changes come in the production - the mix is cleaner than ever, which allows the lower, burnished tones to really add some great foundation to these tracks, but at the same time it makes the buzzing synthesizers that occasionally fill up the background feel jarringly out-of-place, not blended as well as they could be. At best, they're quirky and they kind of fit the vibe, like on 'Lost My Head There' with the sounds of birds filling the background with the synth burbling until it can fill the second half of the song, but at worst you get tracks like 'That's Life Though (almost hate to say)' where the acoustic guitar squeals can mostly work against the percussion and muted keys... until it gets thicker and more prominent and then it doesn't really blend. I should also mention the piano work, which I will admit strengthens the melodies but the tone is a little thin. And just like on Waking On A Pretty Daze, it all goes on about twice as long as it needs to - which honestly isn't as bad as it could be, because the guitarwork is indeed great and the melodic licks do have a hypnotic quality... but they also don't really evolve and you kind of wish Kurt Vile added more complexity to the progressions.

Now this will take us to lyrics and themes, and remember how I made the antifolk comparison earlier? Over the course of his career Kurt Vile has made plenty of jabs of people who read way too much into his work when in reality he's just screwing around or very much in his own world. After all, it's why he finds his brand of fulfilment so why can't everyone else find the same - and even then it can be argued he's not really finding much there either like on 'Lost My Head there'. He doesn't hesitate to include himself in the same dazed and confused state, but he's just accepted it in his own typical self-deprecating way. It's clear even he's laughing as he 'swaggers' through some tracks - he's knows its a put-on, but that's just life, and tracks like 'Kidding Around' are a direct reflection of how some would scan his lines for deeper meaning when he's just screwing around, where he almost wishes he could hear the deeper meaning everyone assigns it! As such, there really isn't much lyrical analysis I'm inclined to do here, mostly because Kurt Vile's right in saying it's hard to tell how much of it is a put-on and that it's impossible to prove one way or the other. If I were to guess, I'd say the emotions are more authentic than not, and I think Kurt Vile looks for that like on the cutting of the bullshit hookup on 'Dust Bunnies' or the mostly straightforward love song 'Stand Inside', but I'd argue those songs are more for the connection than anything else. And when he is in his own world, he's trying to find a way to convey those passions out of it, like on 'Lost My Head There' and 'Wild Imagination' - because why fake that?

In the end, this is definitely a good album, but it's definitely overlong, underwritten, and doesn't really have the momentum or progressions to be as memorable as I'd like. I still appreciate Kurt Vile's unique brand of commentary, but I appreciate it more than I like it, and his instrumental progression might have solid melodies, but he doesn't quite do as much as he could with them. As such, this is a light 7/10 from me and a recommendation - I definitely get this guy's appeal, and if you're looking for some more lethargic music to get good and stoned too, find your pretty daze, this is an easy album to like, for as much as that's worth.

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