For a rock ‘n’ roller, Kurt Vile is a pretty perfect name. Like Johnny Rotten or Captain Beefheart before him, the rising indie rock star has a moniker that suggests an edgy aloofness toward social norms, a willingness to disgust the disapproving in order to achieve his artistic goals. But unlike those forebears, Vile’s stage name is not a pseudonym.
It’s been the Philadelphia singer’s legal epithet since birth. Wisely, he never changed it, not even — as he revealed in a recent Spin cover story — when his father tried to bribe him with a new resonator guitar. He got the instrument but never went through with the change. His live band has been known as The Violators since he began releasing records under his own name five years ago. Vile didn’t come up with his handle, but he sure knows how to use it.
As with his name, Vile is content to let his art progress naturally. His five albums have expanded but never reshaped the style he unveiled with his 2008 debut, Constant Hitmaker, building wispy, drum machine-powered minimalism into lush tapestries of ethereal tones and mumbled vocals, epics spanning as many as 10 minutes that seem both overwhelming and barely there. His style is a graceful wash, easily fording popular tributaries — slacker fuzz, classic rock virtuosity, blissful psychedelics — and gracing them with bluntly charming lyrics.
Such sounds are far from uncommon these days. His buddies in The War on Drugs — with whom Vile played for a while before striking out on his own — have received plaudits for their own meandering musings, as have acts like Ariel Pink and Woods. But Vile distills his own sound more accessibly than any of them, painting rambling, Neil Young-approximate folk-rock with a comfortable daze of effects. He couldn’t have planned it any better.
But, as he does with most things, Vile is just following his own path, wherever it may lead.
“I think I was just doing my own thing, and it conveniently fit into the whole DIY thing,” he explains during a quick phone interview and a spate of summer touring. “It’s not like I didn’t understand the record-nerd culture and all the sudden had all these recordings that I could put out some vinyls really fast. It’s just one step at a time. Everybody’s always influenced by their surroundings. I couldn’t say I didn’t love Ariel Pink or even early Animal Collective. When stuff was blowing up, I was definitely influenced, for sure. But I’m always on a quest to be true to myself as well.”
His constant refinement reached an exacting, auteur-like plateau with 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo. His finger picking is perfectly offset by colorful guitar fills. His common-man mumble finds a just intelligible comfort zone and never leaves it. The songs tend to drift and repeat themselves a bit too much, but the effect is usually hypnotic, entrancing listeners and keeping them content, even if Vile rarely excites them.
This year’s Wakin On a Pretty Daze retains Smoke Ring’s immersive atmosphere and injects catchier melodies and cleaner songwriting. The opening semi-title track, “Wakin On a Pretty Day,” wanders for nine-and-a-half minutes, but it does so purposefully, peddling variations on an innately fetching riff and a litany of cutting couplets — “Phone ringing off the shelf/ I guess he wanted to kill himself.” As with the cutesy, storybook panning of Wes Anderson or the blood-spattered pastiche of Quentin Tarantino, Vile still tends to get lost in his own world, pushing melodies further than he really should, but Waking sees him frequently besting physics, stretching out while still feeling concise. It’s not a classic, but it proves that Vile might just have the tools to create one.
“I guess there’s more energy,” he says. “It’s still pretty laid back. I guess it just depends on the song. There’s more rock in this record, and the other one’s pretty folky. It probably comes from the touring and stuff. I don’t really know. I’m always kind of thinking of pop sensibility. If you think it’s got catchier melodies or whatever, that’s interesting. I can’t tell you where it comes from. I’m really just fine-tuning. It’s all relative. Ideally, you just get better all the time.”
Thus far, Kurt Vile has done just that, making it easy to believe that his best work is still ahead of him.
who: Kurt Vile and the Violators, with The Swirlies
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Wednesday, July 17 (8 p.m. doors/9 p.m. show. $15/$17. thegreyeagle.com)