Kurt Vile - Waking On A Pretty Daze

Three or four years ago, I saw Kurt Vile play one of the worst live sets of my life. He was the second act on a triple-bill at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, one that also featured Fucked Up and Zola Jesus, two strong and dynamic and ferocious live acts. Vile, by contrast, stood up there with his guitar, a goofy half-smile on his face, and bumbled his way through a bunch of songs that never seemed to end. He stood there, staring at a big clump of nothing off to the side of the stage, only barely even holding the space, hiding behind his vast hair. He finished his set with the nifty, Tom Petty-esque “Freeway,” the closest thing he had to a hit at the time, but he barely seemed to remember how the damn song went. That moment, I wrote Vile off forever, or anyway I thought he did. But the withdrawn, diffuse unseriousness that made his live show so unbearable someone turned into positives on Smoke Rings For My Halo, Vile’s very good 2011 album. And with Waking On A Pretty Daze, his new one, those same tendencies have led him to make an LP I won’t hesitate to call an instant classic.

It’s probably not a good idea to listen to Wakin On A Pretty Daze when you’re driving, especially in the first glorious burst of springtime, the narcotic weather that’s only just hitting the East Coast now. It might not be safe. Saturday afternoon here in Charlottesville was still and warm and perfect, and the album seemed to melt the air around me, to cause sunbeams to hit me like drugs. Driving around that day, other drivers kept honking at me because I wouldn’t notice when red lights turned green; I was too busy staring contemplatively at clouds wafting by. This album will do that to you. The basic components of the album are simple enough: Vile’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar, his conversational duck-honk of a voice, his band playing behind him, occasional bits of dinky keyboard-blip or ticky-tack drum machine. And he’s shaped those elements, more or less, into songs. But the songs, even the short ones, bend and flutter and unfurl at their own pace. They don’t flow steadily downstream; they trickle into eddies and brooks and tidal pools. And at a certain point, you stop processing the songs as songs, and the gentle curlicues of guitar become something like a physical sensation. Plenty of steel-string art-folk abstractionists aim to create that bliss-fugue state, and few of them have ever taken me there. But on this album, Vile keeps me stuck in it like honey, and he’s done it by singing a bunch of songs about being a father and a husband and a grown-up.

Vile likes to write in binder-doodle psychedelic imagery: “Spirit in the sky / Transparent to the eye,” that type of thing. But plenty of the lyrics on Waking On A Pretty Daze are grounded in a working-father concrete reality. He starts out “Wakin On A Pretty Day,” the album’s first song, singing about a cell phone on a shelf, buzzing so much it might fall down — “I guess it wanted to kill itself,” Vile shrugs. I know that feeling well. Vile is my age, 33, and married with two kids, like me. And he knows about that soft-bubble effect that can happen when you’re spending time with your family, when absolutely nothing else in the universe seems to matter the tiniest bit, when the slightest outside-world incursions are impossible to contemplate, when the phone will throw itself from the shelf before anyone even thinks about answering it. He knows about wanting to preserve the moment when your kids are tiny, when they need you, even though you know it won’t last, even though you know it shouldn’t: “I wanna live, all the time, in my fantasy infinity.” He knows about the cold reality that even those of us who have awesome, creative jobs have to leave our kids alone and punch the clock every once in a while, and he knows how shitty that feels even though you know it’s what needs to be done: “Take your time, so they say, and that’s probably the best way to be / But what about those who are fathers, and what about their daughters?” “KV Crimes” seems to be about the guilt of being on tour, trying to hang out with the psych wizards in Moon Duo when you just want to be back home with your kids: “I should’ve known / My heart has overgrown / Do you risk it exploding all over?” “Never Run Away” is about knowing the person he’s with right now is the person he’ll be with forever: “You met a young man who was a wild child / Who harmonizes keys in his droning mind / Saxophone sing from inside his head, crying, ’I know you’ll never run away.’” Plenty of the album is about more relatable stuff, about luxuriating in feeling bummed or letting your mind wander. But even when he’s not singing about that bubble, the album’s sound seems to emanate from within it.

Along with Vile and his band, John Agnello co-produced the album. Agnello is a former ’70s/’80s studio-rock pro who somehow became Dinosaur Jr.’s go-to guy, so he knows something about mystic, distractable guitar heroes. But he doesn’t record Vile like a rocker; he lets him amble and wander and mutter to himself, making sure the softest sounds he makes are preserved in all their pillowy intimacy. Vile, like J Mascis, is the type to interrupt himself mid-sentence with a guitar solo, and he does it at least once on the album. The first and last songs on the LP hover around the 10-minute mark, with Vile only stepping to the microphone when he and guitarist Jesse Trvovich have said all they need to say with their fingers. And once the mood sets in, it only slightly registers when one song transitions into another, when anything changes. Waking On A Pretty Daze is an album so devoted to looking around, to taking stock in a moment, that you barely notice when the moment is over. If you’ve got an afternoon to kill, you should spend it with this album, splaying out on a blanket and staring at the sky, maybe with a baby crawling over your chest. I like to think that’s what Vile was doing while he wrote the thing. And if he’d been something other than the faraway goofball whose live show I hated so much, could he have embodied that feeling? Probably not. Sometimes, it takes a dreamer to get shit done.

Waking On A Pretty Daze is out now on Matador.

Other albums of note out this week:

• The Knife’s vast and forbidding comeback Shaking The Habitual.
• James Blake’s artfully funky Overgrown.
• M83′s soundtrack album for the sci-fi movie Oblivion.
• Justin Vernon’s blues-rock side project the Shouting Matches’ amped-up Grownass Man.
• White Fence’s sputtering lo-fi psych-rocker Cyclops Reap.
• Young Man’s trilogy-completing indie-pop opus Beyond Was All Around Me.
• Former Beta Band singer Steve Mason’s solo move Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time.
• Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s classical synthpop throwback English Electric.
• Team Spirit’s cranked-up, partied-out self-titled garage rock debut.
• SZA’s arty R&B excursion S.
• Neon Indian’s remix EP Eratta Annex.

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Comments (67)
  1. haven’t read this yet, but i’m already so happy that this is album of the week

  2. Real happy that this beat out such stiff competition this week. This is the closest thing to a perfect album that I’ve heard this year (though it does have its share of dullish moments). Goldtones is simply the best thing he’s ever done, and that’s certainly saying something. Looking forward to many, many, many hours with this album. Thanks KV.

  3. a great music week. what about that new british songwriter kid? forget his name, but heard some of his stuff and it’s pretty nice.

  4. I can’t stop listening to this album. It’s front to back addictive. I don’t use the word great often – this is a GREAT album.

  5. Just realised what a good week it has been. Love Shaking the Habitual(my AOTW), Kurt Vile killed it again, really enjoying Grownass Man and I haven’t even sank my teeth into Overgrown yet. Great stuff.

    • Grownass man is pretty tight. It’s nice to Vernon get loose (And his pre-emma Springsteen vocals are back! Not that I don’t love the falsetto, it’s just ice to hear his full voice again).

  6. Obsessed with this album and obsessed with KV. Its so refreshing to see/listen to a musician that consistently gets better with age. Hopefully this isn’t his stylistic peak… I doubt it.

    CAN’T WAIT to see him at coachella this weekend. Hopefully he will have the huge crowd he deserves.

  7. This review pretty much summed up how I feel when this thing plays. Great write up Tom.

  8. I’ve loved all of Kurt Vile’s stuff, even his fairly minor early releases, and it’s been really awesome watching him come into own over the past couple of albums. Smoke Ring for My Halo was one of my top two or three favorite albums of 2011, so I thought that would be tough to beat. Yet, while these might not be the 11 best songs he’ll ever write, or even the most coherent group of songs he’ll throw onto an album, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t just a legitimately lovely experience. Sixty-nine minutes never went by so fast. I like this more every time I hear it, and I look forward to keeping this relationship going.

  9. I’ve yet to listen to this album (or The Knife’s), but I’m finally going to catch up, and I’m excited.

    Also, is anyone else in love with James Blake’s new album? Because I’m obsessed with it.

    • Yes I think it’s phenomenal. As someone who didn’t immediately enjoy his debut, but eventually came around to a few songs – “Overgrown” is a blessing for me.

      I love the whole thing front to back and can’t wait to have it on vinyl. My quick and easy favorite thing about it is the longer track lengths. He does better when he can flesh out his songs.

    • Best album of the year so far for me. His song writing has definitely improved and I love the straight up dance (if you can really describe any JB track as that) one-two punch of “Digital Lion” and “Voyeur”. I loved the debut, but Overgrown feels like a more complete and cohesive single artistic statement. Wasn’t sure about the RZA collab at first but that track has won me over majorly, I would love to hear him explore hip-hop even more (there’s been talk of him working with Kendrick, which would possibly be the best thing ever to happen to my life).

      • Apparently he’s been palling around with Kanye too. Lost in the World pt II?

        And yeah, every time Voyeur comes on I just start dancing. I mean, that bell….mmmmmm

      • I have honestly had the RZA track on repeat for the past 2 hours. I think its a bold step in a new direction. His sound is perfect for hip hop.

        Can’t believe pitchfork called it his first “failure”. What a joke.

        • Yeah, that whole review is the real joke. I mean, they gave it an 8.0, but the review still came across as really mixed, and it really only touched on the RZA.

      • James Blake seems to be getting a lot of love from southern rap producers. First Big K.R.I.T. is sampling him, and now Mike Will Made It is all tweeting about how he wants to work with him. And I guess Drake cited him as an inspiration too.

        Could be interesting if the RZA track becomes a first step on a route towards getting involved with hip-hop.

    • I hope we get some kind of write-up on it. Kurt Vile, The Knife, and James Blake all deserve to be AOTW. I really wish there was no other music coming out so I could give each more listens, especially Shakin the Habitual since it’s so demanding, but now Phoenix’s and Deerhunter’s new ones are now out there to go along with The Flaming Lips, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Iron & Wine, Ghostface Killah, Charli XCX. Too much music not enough time!

  10. Great review for a masterpiece of an album. One that gets better with each and every listen. One that flows so freaking perfectly it sets a higher bar for everyone else. One that will certainly age quite well over time. One that reminds me why I love amazing music so damn much!!

    BTW…does anyone else hear a little Grateful Dead in ‘Goldtone’. Crazy good song.

  11. I saw Kurt play a free show at NYU with Owen a few weeks back. It was a totally rad set (even though the audience was full of NYU students) though I can see how he might not fit in with Fucked Up and Zola Jesus.

    This album is dope.

  12. Wow. Gonna listen to this right now.

  13. This get’s the nod of course. WOAPD has the unique balance of immediate hook and slow burn that great albums have. It’s damn long too.

    That being said DAWES. Dawes gets zero write-up on any music websites! Seriously, what makes them so taboo or unpublishable? They have to be one of the most talented bands, musician for musician. There new album is ambitious and solid. They deserve at least a fuckin blurb at the bottom over a Neon Indian fucking remix ep, come on.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBWY5RQSA6s

  14. I don’t really see the comparison. I mean, they’re both guitar playing singer-songwriters…but so are like a thousand other people. Also, “Hardcore rape style” sounds pretty dumb when talking about ripping someone off. I’m not all PC and offended by it, it just sounds really stupid.

  15. yeah, i dont’ see it either. if kurt’s ripping off elliot smith, then macklemore’s ripping off inspectah deck.

  16. I don’t see the Elliott Smith comparison at all. If anything, Kurt reminds me of Nick Drake.

  17. Ummm… how? You can’t make such an audacious claim like that and not back it up. The most comparable you can get with their guitar styles is their fingerpicking, which are still radically different. Elliott Smith, for the most part, kept standard tunings, many times dropping all strings whole steps, but still “standard,” and focused his picking/fingerpicking on pulling melodies out of the chord shapes he was holding (kind of a tough way to explain it, but Son of Sam and Waltz #2 are good examples). Kurt, does not. Open/alternative tunings many times, establishes a riff and does variations on it (see Blackberry Song, Girl Named Alex, or Baby’s Arms).

    Lyrically, ES is much more direct and succinct. Kurt has a much more “in the moment” style, with much less story telling than ES. If anything, I’d compare ES to Paul Simon, and Kurt to, I don’t know, I can’t think of who he is lyrically similar to… I guess Tom Petty.

    Needless to say, you are WRONG sir WRONG… you STOLE Fizzy-Lifting Drinks! You BUMPED into the ceiling, which now has to be washed and sterilized, so you get… wait, I’m going off track here.

    Good day sir.

  18. Shame Chamber is fucking awesome

  19. That album opener is to opossum for.

  20. I really don’t think there was any danger of anyone, besides you, saying that.

  21. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • Not for nothing, but you couldn’t have paralleled two more bipolar examples than Kurt Vile and the Knife. The fact you take the time to torpedo an album then counteract with what it exactly is that you’d rather listen to totally justifies any downvotes that come your way brutha.

      • Look. Man, I’ve got certain information, all right?

        Certain things have come to light, and…

        You know, has it ever occurred to you

        that instead of, you know, running around,

        blaming me, given the nature of all this new shit,

        this could be a lot more,…

        .. complex?

        I mean, it might not be just such a simple,

        You know?

      • Eh what? The relevance of The Knife reference was merely because it is my favourite album at the moment and my lack of love for this KV album had sent me back into its loving arms.

      • It’s pretty funny he picks that line too since I think Shaking the Habitual REALLY has some “songs” that never seem to end.

  22. Steve Mason has a new album out! Best news all week

  23. The new Deerhunter should be the album of the week and month! It’s a good’n! (i do understand it wasn’t technically released for sale yet). I love the direction they’ve taken

  24. I am pissed!!

    Pitchfork only gave this album an 8.5. That is weak Mr. Jayson Greene!

    WOAPD is an instant classic and hands down should have been given at least a 9.0.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that it is in PF’s “Best New Music” category but to me, 8.5 makes it fall in with everything else. This album stands above everything else that is being done right now. It is both innovative and a throw back. It is freaking 70 minutes longs with nary a dull moment on it. What an amazing LP that should be getting much more recognition.

    AOTY….book it.

  25. this song has damn near the exact same hook/riff as Bottomless Pit’s “Dogtag.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oHwFgMOHeU

  26. Now this is well spent money. The ROI is tremendous. Great, great album. Welcome to the top 10 of 2013, Kurtis.

  27. Why is never any mention of Childish Prodigy?

  28. I love the album! I have only one question…why is the version of never run away on the album different from the one on that commercial up top? I LOVE the synth on that version!

  29. ” That moment, I wrote Vile off forever, or anyway I thought he did. But the withdrawn, diffuse unseriousness that made his live show so unbearable someone turned into positives on Smoke Rings For My Halo, Vile’s very good 2011 album.”

    uhhh did anyone proofread this? three mistakes in these two sentences..

  30. His best album. By far.

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