First of all, some non-musical stuff: unless you were in a coma over the weekend, you’re probably aware that a massive fucking earthquake hit Japan on Friday (or late Thursday night for us Americans) and it triggered a tsunami that did further damage, especially in Miyagi Prefecture. If you have some charity dollars to spend, please consider giving to Americares. They’re wicked efficient with your money – about 98 cents of every dollar you spend goes directly to helping people. In fiscal 2009, a $100 dollar donation helped Americares deliver about $3500 of aid. They’re consistently one of the most highly rated charities on Charity Navigator. Even if you don’t give to Americares, please consider doing what you can to help the people in Japan. I know regular Bollocks! readers are not fantastically wealthy people, but even the tiniest donations can make a huge difference, especially in the hands of a charity like Americares. The money I formerly spent on an e-Music subscription is now a monthly tithe to the Red Cross (only three stars on Charity Navigator, but they still operate at about 91% efficiency, which I believe is an improvement on their part).
Sermon over. Let’s talk shit about music.
I’ve put off listening to Kurt Vile for a few years now, but not out of any specific reservations regarding the dude himself. Hell, I kind of figured to like the guy; his stage name is a pun on the name of a frequent Bertolt Brecht collaborator (who was also an influence on Tom Waits). I just haven’t gotten around to Kurt Vile yet and I was wondering the other day if I should so something about that when I noticed that NPR’s First Listen was still streaming his Smoke Ring for My Halo (they seem to be deliciously lax in taking streaming albums off of their site). That kind of answered that question pretty quickly.
Next question: does Kurt Vile sound like Kurt Weill? No. He sounds more like Iggy Pop singing over some lost M. Ward instrumental tracks, which is actually kind of pleasant for a while but then it gets a little on the dull side. Okay, a lot on the dull side. Smoke Ring for My Halo is pleasant enough through its first two tracks, but I start yawning right at the beginning of “Puppet to the Man”, in which Vile sings, “By now, you probably think I’m a puppet to the Man.” The thought hadn’t occurred to me before, but I stopped believing in “the Man” years ago. I think singing about “the Man” is as passé as talking about “the System” – it’s just a vague way for ignorant people to sound rebellious. Mind you, I don’t think Vile is being ignorant on “Puppet”; I sense that he’s making fun of the same people I’m talking about. But the song is still not very exciting.
I guess Smoke Ring for My Halo is just a little too understated for my taste. You might not think that someone who would spend their time writing Bollocks! would go for understated music but it wasn’t that long ago that I was heaping praise upon the new Daniel Martin Moore record, which is understated if anything is. I think that Vile’s lyrics meander a bit much for my liking, and, my earlier comparison to Iggy Pop notwithstanding, his vocals are pretty monotonous.
I get that there are some shimmery guitar bits on this album and I know that, as a guitar player, I’m supposed to just eat that stuff up. But I’m kind of weird, as guitarists go – I play the guitar to write songs (or play songs that others have written, but my guitar playing is song-oriented either way) and I like my fiddly bits to fit the song first. Vile’s playing isn’t all flashy solos or anything, but the dude uses a lot more effects than I usually like to hear (to be fair, I am not a fan of 99% of guitar effects. I have one pedal and it switches between clean guitar and distorted guitar and that’s pretty much all I want. And I’m also really sorry to have discussed guitar gear on this blog. That’s probably seriously boring, even to other guitar players), although this is supposed to be his least effects-heavy record to date.
Vile’s delivery suggests a mood of bemused detachment that I kind of enjoy, like he’s simultaneously laughing at and with the people he’s singing about. To be sure, there’s some really lovely guitar playing here (especially on “Peeping Tomboy”), but it’s not enough to keep me listening to the record. It’s not necessarily a bad album, but it’s too boring to for me to consider it good (so where does that leave it? It’s just an album, I guess). The songs feel longer than they actually are (I feel like even the shortest songs arrive in my ears driving a hot-boxed VW van with a bumper sticker that says, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”) and the production has the same sort of hazy, plodding vibe throughout.
Smoke Ring for My Halo is also supposed to be Kurt Vile’s most intelligible album, but I don’t think it gains anything by my understanding the line “Hey kids, what’s a guitar?” on “On Tour.” Pitchfork seemed to dig the line, calling the song “both monastic and vast all at once.” Obviously, I disagree with that assessment of “On Tour” (and Pitchfork’s assessment of Smoke Ring for My Halo in general). First of all, there’s nothing particularly monastic about the song. Second, the terms “monastic” and “vast” are not necessarily mutually exclusive terms. I think you could probably use those words to describe the feeling of standing in the middle of the Badwater salt flat in Death Valley.
When I’ve got the flu, which happens pretty rarely, I try to sleep a lot. Literally as much as I possibly can. During these bouts of sick sleep, I will occasionally wake up in a fog and not really know where I am or what time of day it is. I’ll lift my head up slightly from the pillow, determine that I’m still alive and still feeling ill, and go immediately back to sleep until matters improve. I kind of get that feeling from Smoke Ring for My Halo, like if I sleep a little more, I’ll wake up during a really great part. But I never do.