The late 2000s have spewed out a staggering number of fuzzed-out chillwavers, low fidelity rockers, and tape-hiss troubadours. Many have consistently put out some of the most enjoyable music of the past few years and many others are probably destined to end up remembered as flashes in the pan. But, even among the heaviest of the lo-fi heavyweights, few have approached what might be considered genuine greatness, in that their songwriting transcends their fascination with production aesthetics and the production aesthetic amounts to more than a well executed gimmick. There’s little question that Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile has become one of those truly noteworthy few, crafting memorable bedroom-pop anthems and utilizing lo-fi in a way that such a labeling feels incomplete and inadequate.
Vile’s rise into the indie limelight started back in 2008 with the release of Wagonwheel Blues from his stellar band The War on Drugs and his official solo debut Constant Hitmaker. Though the former has often been primarily credited to frontman Adam Granduciel, further Kurt Vile works have confirmed that he obviously played a large role in constructing The War on Drugs’ dense shoegazing blues-rock. One need not look beyond that record or his sporadic live sets with backup band The Violators to know that he can convincingly posture as some forgotten classic rock god, channeling the likes of Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Neil Young, and Lou Reed. And while some of that posturing has cropped up now and then on Vile’s solo material – take the soaring CCR-stomp of Constant Hitmaker opener “Freeway” – on his own he has more typically delved into the realm of spacey psych-folk, recalling the nihilistic sonic legacies of Suicide and Spacemen 3.
Childish Prodigy, Kurt Vile’s latest album and debut for Matador Records, finds him joined by members of The Violators as well as The War on Drugs and strikes at the surprisingly comfortable middle ground between bombastic lo-fi rock gems and his more fragile bedroom compositions. “Hunchback” – which also kicked off the 2009 EP of the same name – leads off with vigor. Re-recorded as a leaner, bolder version of itself, this track is driven by an immovable, stone-cold guitar groove and Vile’s menacing, outburst-laden ramble. These rousing rock antics quickly give way to the reverbed arpeggios of “Dead Alive” and the subdued, psychedelic “Overnite Religion”. On the latter, shakes of tambourine and maracas frame hypnotic, interwoven acoustic strums as Vile’s vocals mumble along in a meandering drawl, accented with touches of clumsy falsetto. Before you know it “Freak Train” hits with a drum gallop that should now be familiar for fans of Kurt Vile projects, unfolding slowly as layers of guitars and feedback swell into a massive, lo-fi wall of sound. As this careening epic ultimately fades into “Blackberry Song”, another fragile and moving meditation centered on mesmerizing guitar loops, the cycle begins anew. Vile continues to press through Childish Prodigy with a swirl of seesawing approaches and textures, oscillating between the monumental and the stripped-down, the rousing and the restrained. From his take on Dim Stars’ “Monkey”, to the soaring nostalgia of “Amplifier”, to the bass-heavy, drugged-out harmonica-drone of “Inside Lookin’ Out”, he continues to affirm that this record is one of his strongest works yet. And perhaps most impressive is Vile’s ability to coalesce these varying compositions into a smooth and compelling whole that adheres to its own haphazard logic and soon lures, captivates, and absorbs the listener.
“Hits” and “Hitsmaker” are phrases that are used liberally by both record labels and Vile himself in regard to his music and his place within the Philly scene. Liberally and probably spuriously – though he may conjure images of classic AM rockers, there’s no question that such images are distorted and marred in a haze of feedback and lo-fi weirdness. And yet Childish Prodigy, which feels like a first step in that oft-dreaded progression towards “accessibility”, seems to leave Vile a little less immersed in irony (if he ever was). But, it also feels like a natural step. And even if later releases find him composing with increased focus and recording at higher fidelities, it’s hard to imagine Vile giving us something that won’t keep us guessing in some respect.