Have you ever seen a picture of a music artist and think to yourself that they would be an artist that you’d like? That was exactly the case when I discovered Kurt Vile. During 2015, I was seeing a bunch of ads for his then-new album, b’lieve i’m goin’ down. He appeared on the front cover with a resonator guitar looking like Jimmy Page circa 1970. The album earned itself a Billboard chart-topping single with “Pretty Pimpin’” and it immediately grabbed my ears. I finally pulled the trigger on purchasing the album and it became the soundtrack to my summer of 2016, and I’ve never looked back since. As much as I’m an old soul when it comes to the genres and artists that I like, anytime I mention my favorite modern/indie artists, Kurt Vile is the first person that comes to mind. After all, he is Philadelphia’s self-proclaimed “constant hitmaker.”
Kurt Vile is no stranger to the indie rock world. Hailing from the city of Philadelphia, he has been actively creating music for almost twenty years. He was a co-founder of the band The War on Drugs with Adam Granduciel, releasing the album Wagonwheel Blues in 2008. Adam also became a part of Kurt’s touring band, The Violators, until 2011. While collaborating with Adam, Kurt had spent several years prior creating his own homemade lo-fi recordings. His debut album, 2008’s Constant Hitmaker, is merely a “best-of” of those early recordings. The release of this album coincided with his exit from The War on Drugs to pursue his own musical voyage. Constant Hitmaker was followed with God Is Saying This to You, consisting of more homemade recordings. After releasing those albums on various small labels (respectively Gulcher Records and Mexican Summer), Kurt had signed to notable indie label Matador and released Childish Prodigy in 2009. This was the start of a successful trek of albums on the label, such as 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo (my personal favorite!), 2013’s Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, 2015’s b’lieve i’m goin’ down, and 2018’s Bottle It In. In between album cycles, he has collaborated with a variety of artists, ranging from indie artists Sore Eros and Meg Baird to late country-folk legend John Prine. His most notable collaborative effort was Lotta Sea Lice, an album made with Australian musician Courtney Barnett. The man has built quite an impressive resume by working with many great musicians and consistently releasing stellar albums that sound like John Prine, Neil Young, and Tom Petty with a hint of psychedelia.
After devoting many years to Matador, Kurt has broken out of the indie mold and signed to Verve Records, the home to many classic acts such as The Mothers of Invention and The Velvet Underground (them being one of the reasons why Kurt opted to sign with the label). This new venture signals his new album and the first album on the label, (watch my moves).
(watch my moves) opens with the sparsely arranged “Goin’ on a Plane Today.” The unaccompanied yet uplifting piano chords form the basis of the song coupled with propelling saxophones and trumpets adding a quaint, baroque quality to the track. It is a solid album opener that signals the beginning of the journey the record takes the listener on. The following track, “Flyin’ (Like a Fast Train),” leads the listener into classic KV territory with sequenced percussion, phased acoustic guitar, slinky lead guitar licks, and Kurt’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The title of the next track, “Palace of OKV in Reverse,” almost hints at the reversed guitars that signal the track’s introduction. While the reversed guitars are ethereal sounding, the ante is upped with the airy synthesizer melody. This is followed by the album’s first single, “Like Exploding Stones.” This song is a perfect example of how Kurt Vile gives his listeners an insight into what must be going on in his mind musically. The song’s arrangement and structure are very loose with various musical elements fading in and out, such as Moog synthesizer and various guitar textures. The track almost builds up to a climax that results in a tasteful tenor saxophone solo. With the track running at about seven minutes in length, it is an ideal track to “vibe” out to.
Slide guitars and a bed of synths set the tone for “Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone),” an ode to the Philadelphia suburb Kurt resides in. The musical tone of this track is reminiscent of the blissful nature of the track “Goldtone” on his 2013 album Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze. “Hey Like a Child” is perhaps the quintessential Kurt Vile love song. The cute nature of the lyrics is delivered with bending jangly guitars. Upon hearing the opening guitar licks to “Jesus on a Wire,” it reminded me much of the track “Jesus Fever,” which appears on his 2011 album Smoke Ring for My Halo. I immediately got goosebumps when he referenced the lyric, “I saw him risin’ over the horizon and I saw him fall.” It felt as if Kurt was revisiting some older ground with this character/figure of Jesus, as referenced in both song titles. Perhaps Jesus is to Kurt as what Major Tom was to David Bowie: characters bound to be revisited ten years from each other. Cate Le Bon contributes piano and some lovely harmonizing vocals on this track. Kurt shifts into a cool, grooving, classic rock territory in “Fo Sho,” with its distorted electric guitars and double-tracked vocals.
My favorite track on this record is “Cool Water.” It has a slight country tinge to it with its acoustic, resonator, and bending guitars. The calmness of this track makes it one that you can blast with the top down basking in the summer air. Kurt’s distinctive acoustic finger-picking style signals the next track, “Chazzy Don’t Mind.” The song’s title perhaps alludes to the fact that the background vocals were done by all the members of the band Chastity Belt. Mellotrons and string synthesizers provide a mellow bed for the song to build on. “(shiny things)” is a brief synthesized interlude that leads into the driving “Say The Word.” The drums are what give this track a certain driving quality and the finger-picked acoustic guitars lock in perfectly.
Kurt Vile has often honed in on his love for Bruce Springsteen by referencing him in song lyrics or covering “Downbound Train” on his So Outta Reach EP. This time around, he covers a rather obscure Springsteen track called “Wages of Sin,” which was a leftover from the sessions of Born in the USA. The double-tracked vocals, mellotron, loose acoustic guitars, and piano plucked melody jams on to serve this track as a fitting climax to the record. The comedown from this buildup is served with the three-minute instrumental “Kurt Runner,” with a repeated synthesizer sequence. The album is rounded off with the calm “Stuffed Leopard.” This song is almost like a lost distant relative of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” with its similar chord sequence and spoken word vocal style. The use of brushes on the drum kit, harmonies, and acoustic guitar close out this album very beautifully.
Wearing an alligator mask, Kurt is featured on the front cover with his kids Awilda and Delphine (who sports a very flashy red wig!). The album artwork is very intimate with various Polaroid collages and glimpses of the recording sessions. The vinyl pressing itself was mastered by Joe Nino Hernes at Sterling Sound and it sounds absolutely real, smooth, and warm. The webstore exclusive pressing is a nice, clean-sounding pressing pressed on vibrant purple vinyl (there is also a green variant exclusive to indie stores). I decided to sell out a few extra bucks to get a cover print signed and touched by the hand of Kurt!
It is safe to say that Kurt Vile has sort of strayed from his lo-fi upbringings and has honed in on a more polished “psychedelic Americana” type of sound that most listeners can identify him with. Perhaps given the fact that this album was recorded at his newly built at-home studio, is it too cliche to say that (watch my moves) is his most “at home” sounding album? There is a sense of tranquility that is laced all over this record that makes it such a soothing, calm, and cool listening experience. There aren’t too many sharp turns to readjust the listener’s ears. For an artist twenty years into the game, he is still turning stones to this day with more dreamy songs, the musicians he collaborates with, and the way he goes about his loose but executed precisely arrangements; so be sure to watch Kurt Vile’s moves, because he is still onto something.
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