Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo (Music Review)

Smoke Ring For My Halo cover

Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo

The first time I heard Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, my reaction was to try to remember what else he had done. His casual, assured style immediately made me think of Stephen Malkmus or recent Sonic Youth, practiced 90’s slackers who are still recording music. It was actually a surprise when I realized that Vile is someone new to the music scene.

Vile sings in an almost-spoken, laid-back style, which seems like it could become a sneer if he put a little more energy into it. Instead, it comes across as a half-whine, half-stoned sound. His backing band provides simple guitar-based pop with a lazy feel that calls to mind the “smoke rings” of the album’s title: It is fun and relaxing, with no real intention of going anywhere or trying something new.

When this style works, it can be excellent. The first few tracks give off a confident stoner-pop vibe that I really want to like, especially “Jesus Fever” (a perfect song to get lost in, with its folksy guitar and a downer-hook in the repeated line “I’m already gone”). Unfortunately, Vile front-loads the album with his best music, and it starts to wear thin by the end. On a second listen, even the early standouts have started to lose their luster.

The problem is that the lazy slacker sound actually takes a lot of experience to pull off. Bands like Sonic Youth had a full decade to figure out what worked and what didn’t (and at a time when the audience was more forgiving of experimentation). Vile skips over that long career of self-discovery, and tries to start out in the same territory that the masters are currently inhabiting. This quiet, laid-back style only works when it sounds completely effortless, but it paradoxically demands perfectection. A single note or line out of place stands out in these simple, clear songs, and they easily destroy the illusion.

The line between “mesmerizing” and “boring” is very thin for this music, and is mainly determined by whether it supports appropriately compelling vocals. Unfortunately, Vile doesn’t seem to have a grasp on what sounds good or bad coming from his mouth, and lines like “Don’t know if you really came but I feel dumb in asking” cause the entire composition to come crashing down. The slow pace of a song like “Baby’s Arms” is appropriately relaxing, but in a song like “Peeping Tomboy”, it just sounds like Vile is stalling for time.

Smoke Ring For My Halo is the work of some very skilled artists who haven’t yet figured out how to use their talents. I hope that they aren’t quite the slackers that they appear to be, because if they aren’t satisfied with the work here, they could still learn to record a real masterpiece. This album doesn’t seem to have a place now, but it would work well if it could become the occasionally-satisfying introduction to someone who got a lot better.

Grade: C

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