Print Edition: May 8, 2013
“Hey, but I’m just human, after all,” sings Kurt Vile on the eight-minute mid-album pledge “Too Hard,” which finds the drawling lo-fi Philadelphia singer cataloguing a series of promises both personal and civic. Waking on a Pretty Daze is Vile’s fifth solo record released after co-founding The War on Drugs in 2008. It comes two years after Vile’s critical breakthrough, Smoke Ring For My Halo, a record which helped establish what could be described as his signature style: intricate and chiming acoustic guitar arpeggios; ‘70s American rock sensibilities; sporadic drum machines; heady, ramshackle production and a laid-back, slacker rock attitude.
It’s a distinctive, but not constricting combination, and something that Vile toys with freely. It makes it really easy to identify one of his tracks when it comes on the radio. Hell, Vile’s voice itself would be enough to give him away. It’s an unmistakable airy, droning low-register twang, heaving the album forward.
Achieving a strong, unmistakably original voice is something all artists struggle with. People driven to create music tend to have deep taste and interest in other music, which in turn makes it difficult to overcome the weight of one’s influences. Kurt Vile’s work is no different, but for the fact that he has seemed to breach that gap, where his records cease to be “a mash-up of Tom Petty and Grandaddy” or “Pavement meets John Fahey,” but simply Kurt Vile records.
Blessed with a knack for titles that evoke the atmosphere of the album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze sounds just as you would expect. There’s an unhurried, hypnotic and contemplative feel to Vile’s songs, which seem to circle back in on themselves. He mostly eschews traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure. The songs thrive on a blissful disregard for running times or building up momentum or anxiety, but finding a laid-back groove and letting it ride. It’s stoner rock for millenials.
The album is swimming in sing-along “heys” and “yeahs” delivered with casual perfection, arriving precisely when necessary (not unlike certain wizards). Vile’s music certainly has a mystical streak that’s less to do with lyrics than instrumentation and production. Swirling chorus and flanger effect pedals give each guitar note a sort of worn, warm indeterminacy. Vile kind of seems like Mac DeMarco’s older brother: a quiet, long-haired pot philosopher who mostly keeps to himself and his basement studio.
The progression between 2011’s Smoke Ring and Wakin is not astronomical. There are slight variations and new territory explored by way of longer running times (“Too Hard” at eight minutes long and the title track at 9:37), a return to some more electric guitar-based work (roadhouse stomper “Kv Crimes”) and some slight country leanings (the slide guitar-powered chorus of “Shame Chamber”), but the two records are of a piece. They paint the portrait of an idiosyncratic musician working on the cusp of mainstream attention, from the comforts of his own garage.