Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo – Round 5: Tom’s Choice

In typical teacher fashion I set my charges a homework and then neglect to do it myself! A vinyl copy of my new purchase coupled with a week in a caravan in North Wales has not been conducive to completing the required six listens since the meeting (I have probably managed about four) but I have begun to grow into the record and it has started to reveal its secrets with each subsequent listen. My relationship with Kurt Vile’s latest album is now at the stage where I know the songs well enough to recognise the occasional motif/melody/riff, have a sense of the running order of the songs (so that I can anticipate the sound of the next song before it appears) but I am still a long way from making sense of the record as a whole. To me, this sounds like an exciting and interesting album, more enticing, perhaps, than his last release (2009’s Childish Prodigy). It has a breadth of style that the previous album lacked and a poppier side to Vile’s songwriting is revealed in songs like ‘Baby’s Arms’ and ‘Runner Ups’. Vile’s voice is instantly recognisable and at times reminds me of an authentic version of Bobby Gillespie’s somewhat affected Southern drawl. It is also pivotal. Replace his singing with a more anonymous vocal and the effect of the album would be very different – there is no doubt that Smoke Ring For My Halo (the title kind of gives it away) needs to be delivered by a voice that has lived the songs. In my mind, no matter how pretty the tune – and some of them are surprisingly pretty – Beiber would struggle to pull off the cover version! My current thinking is that this album could be special but could just as easily fade away into the background of my collection.

My reasons for setting the condition of bringing a ‘first-listen’ album to this meeting centre on my frequent inability to make accurate judgments of a record’s quality on first listen, something that the format of the club requires on (often) two listens a session. I am amazed at how difficult I still find this, having been through the process thousands (if not tens of thousands) of times. So I thought it would be interesting to document the process of getting to know an album from scratch to see how the listener’s relationship with the album develops with familiarity. During the meeting itself I felt a little disappointed with my choice. Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse sounded to me to be one of his very best (and that’s saying something) and Zaireeka was more like a religious experience than a record! So poor old Kurt Vile never really stood much of a chance; I truly believe nothing can measure up to the sound of Zaireeka and Apocalypse’s twists and turns made Smoke Ring For My Halo seem a little linear and predictable. But maybe the comparison is unfair, perhaps a little like comparing Citizen Kane to Inception 3D or something (note, I am not saying that SRFMH is the musical equivalent of Citizen Kane). However, as I have subsequently listened to SRFMH, the gap has closed, Zaireeka’s sonic assault has faded (although I am not sure the neighbours would necessarily agree) and Kurt Vile’s songs have revealed a complexity and warmth that was not evident to me on first listen. God knows how the professional reviewers ever reach a decision when having to award stars to records!

I am going to buy Apocalypse, I am going to carry on listening to SRFMH and I will return to update this post when I have got to know both albums properly*.

* Zaireeka is obviously going to have to wait.

Nick listened: I feel amazingly sorry for Kurt Vile, because I can remember almost nothing about this record given what followed at this session: Zaireeka blew everything else out of the water, and while I’ve listened to the Callahan a few times since, I’ve had neither chance nor inclination to revisit this. I was expecting it to be more gnarly, more noisy, but instead can only recall it being pleasant if nondescript alt.country. Sorry Tom, sorry Kurt!

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