Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
Sometimes you just get a feeling about an artist. It was in the summer of 2010 that I first heard Kurt Vile. I usually make a habit of spending as little time as required at Terminal 5 because it reminds me of middle school dances, but this time I was early to see the National and there he was, this lanky kid from Philly with an acoustic guitar. You know how when a crazy person walks up to you on the street it’s weirdly exhilarating? How you keep a safe distance but a part of you wants to suspend time so you can stop and observe this person in their remarkably altered state? My first impression of Kurt Vile was of being allowed to do that. That night at Terminal 5 most kids milled about the near-empty concrete space drinking and chatting but those who tuned in were transported, plugged into this alternate frequency for a few precious moments.
“It’s a low, muted attentiveness that he inspires. A relaxed, almost opiated kind of engagement.”
Any concern that the intense vibe — curtain of long hair, remote persona — was the whole story with this guy disappeared as soon as I started listening to the records. The songs were just amazing — these beguiling little displays of languidness layered over incredibly precise, inventive arrangements, and deeply witty lyrics. “He reminds me of an older person, maybe someone like a Lee Hazelwood type,” none other than Kim Gordon told me once when I brought him up, knowing she was a big fan. “He has a sort of Dylanish delivery but it doesn’t sound like Dylan.” No, he sounds like Kurt Vile. He has that thing that great artists always have where they remind you a bit of everybody else good but only really sound like themselves.
Needless to say I was stoked to hear him play a small acoustic set at Electric Lady Studios in advance of the April release of his new album Wakin On A Pretty Daze. “Most of the record feels like one big daze to me,” the singer said when asked about the title. In a throwback to the good old days of record industry decadence, we all drank freely from the open bar (shout out to the bartender’s excellent gold-dust-garnished tequila cocktails) before Vile appeared, wearing an argyle sweater and Converse. He took us through a quick assortment of new stuff and old, including the new record’s analgesic title track. It’s so weird the way this guys’ music affects the human biorhythm. It’s fair to say the crowd was rapt – fully plugged-in within a few minutes of Vile taking the makeshift stage. But it’s a low, muted attentiveness that he inspires. A relaxed, almost opiated kind of engagement. Midway through the mini-set the entire crowd just spontaneously sat down cross-legged, ostensibly in order to see Vile better but also because it feels right to take a load off while listening to this music.
“To get up on top these days you gotta be a low-life drifter,” Vile sang. “Sure, I’m into being deliberate but I’m also obsessive,” he told me later when I asked him about his signature low-fi intensity. “Every step of the way you kinda get deep into the details of your surroundings, build a house there for a while, get to know every nook and cranny. I understand at this point that things will naturally evolve the harder you work on things and the better you get at your craft. You can see and understand after awhile that there are bigger things to come, you can see it from further away and you just accept it, and try not to rush to a point that you’ll gradually get to anyway. Just try not to burn yourself out thinking too much, one step at a time-style.” I vote Kurt Vile for millennial Zen Master.
Wakin on a Pretty Daze is out 4/9 via Matador.