"Smoke Ring for My Halo." Kurt Vile. Philly troubadour Kurt Vile began dropping his enigmatic mix of mumbled classic rock, hazy folk and streetwise proto-punk in the middle of the last decade, gaining considerable notice for 2008's "Constant Hitmaker," 2009's "Childish Prodigy" and 2010's "Square Shells" EP.
These records found Vile playing the elusive prankster, ducking and weaving through a lo-fi fog of spacey effects, offering layers of gorgeous guitar work offset by seemingly mundane or outright nonsensical vocal observations that played like private jokes that only Vile got.
Just when his aloof and flippant attitude would start to wear thin, he would lay out a melody and drop a few sage lines to reel you back in. After he had you back, he'd floor you with something as achingly beautiful as "I Know I Got Religion" or "Blackberry Song," and the musical conversation Vile is having with himself would resonate with remarkable clarity.
It's a tricky line Vile chooses to tread, but it's one that has earned him considerable accolades from the likes of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., as well as attracting a rabid cult following that has his unlikely aesthetic poised to enter more mainstream waters.
His latest release, "Smoke Ring for My Halo," is by far Vile's most polished and accomplished release, putting his vocals and exquisite guitar playing front and center with a cleaner production, courtesy of John Agnello (The Hold Steady, Andrew WK), and the solid backing of his band of collaborators, The Violators.
Ghosts of John Fahey can be heard in the fingered guitar pickings of the misanthropic love song of the opener "Baby's Arm," and best exemplifies Vile's ability to harness his downtrodden sentiments in a light that can be as gentle as it is forcefully direct.
"Jesus' Fever" and "In My Time" find Vile is perfectly capable of channeling his Tom Petty and Neil Young influences into pop songs that rival his forbears, and feel ripe for the type of commercial exploitation that TV and commercials bestow upon choice indie rock these days.
"Runner Ups" is a self-referential kiss-off that finds Vile channeling Lou Reed and Townes Van Zandt, as well as incorporating elements of classic bluesmen such as Robert Johnson into his ongoing narrative. That's some weighty company to pull from so effectively, and should silence critics who felt that Vile's talent was limited to a fringe underground appeal.
Not all efforts are as memorable, such as the wonderfully composed but somewhat lyrically challenged "Peeping Tom." "Puppet to the Man" pays lip service to Vile's beloved Bob Seger in a track that feels superfluous to the rest of the material, and "Society Is My Friend" and "On Tour" bristle with compelling ideas that are bogged down by long running times.
There are points on the record at which longtime fans might wish the more disheveled Vile would show up, and some of the spontaneity of those earlier records is missing from this more "professional"-sounding release.
Despite that, Vile has crafted his most mature and focused album to date, living up to early promise and still largely retaining his edge. This is mostly a stunning performance.