Underground critic’s darlings have a way of becoming annoying by no fault of their own. Without release strategies or recording/touring cycles, word of mouth keeps a steady stream of attention flowing toward an artist as new folks discover the artist at their own pace. Eventually, overkill can start setting in, especially with a lack of new material. After hearing quite a lot about Kurt Vile in the last 9 months, it’s great to finally hear him. Not that we haven’t heard a lot of charming material from Vile in 2009 already (the Hunchback EP, the God is Saying This To You? mini-album, and the rerelease of Constant Hitmaker on Woodsist), but after signing with Matador and talking publicly about already-in-the-can LP Childish Prodigy for some time, this is the official coming out that the hype has been building toward. Now with all eyes trained on him, Vile delivers an album which builds on his aesthetic identity, but whose form confounds expectations.
On Childish Prodigy, Vile shows up in one of two modes. The first consists of finding a groove and riding it out to see where it goes, and this is the more successful of the two modes. The other consists of coming up with a pretty guitar figure or two, and just kind of repeating them and mumbling over the top like a madman on a mission. It’s as loose as he has ever sounded, and it still sounds like he’s playing the same handful of chords that he was playing on the tunes on Constant Hitmaker, they’re just polished up a bit to jangle and sparkle more brightly. However, on most of the tracks here, there is little in the way of negative space or shifts in dynamics, which gives the material a flat feel. On songs like “Dead Alive” and “Overnight Religion”, which consist of only voice and guitar, the guitar plays at about the same volume and rhythm from start to finish, showing more affinity in form to dance or drone music than to the traditions of the rock song. There’s nothing wrong with bucking traditionalism, but these songs just kind of hang there in the ether, failing to deliver any payoff. On the cover of the Dim Star’s “Animal”, one can get a sense of how good some of the other songs would sound if a little more attention was paid to songwriting. Whether these stylistic decisions are a matter of laziness or artistic vision is an open question. Maybe Vile can see a future where songs don’t necessarily have to develop in interesting ways to be enjoyable, but I don’t share his vision.
At the microphone, Vile is coming into his own, sounding freaky and unhinged, confident in his voice, even as it is heavily soaked in reverb and echo. He spits out some great off-the cuff, Dylanesque couplets (“You tell me a good man is hard to find/Well what are you bli-i-i-ind?”, and “Go ahead and tell me hello or fuck you/ whatever introduction suits you”), and can sound as sweet and plaintive as the best in the business. Elsewhere, he sounds like a carnival barker/square dance caller acting as a tour guide for a trip through a disheveled psyche, taking command of songs with urgent howls and hollers, dropping in just when he can sense there is a lull developing.
While the half-baked quality of the earlier material is what gives it its charm, and to a certain extent it’s intimate feeling, a lot of the material on Prodigy feels baked for an even shorter amount of time. Though Vile’s being billed as a rocker, much of the album is devoid of drums and bass, or even verses and choruses. One gets the feeling that with a few minutes chopped off of these tracks, they’d gain some mystery (as the relatively compact “Blackberry Song” proves), but as they are, they meander aimlessly and feel a lot longer than their indicated running times. More successful tracks, like classic-in-the-making “Freak Train” and fever dreamer “Inside Lookin’ Out” supplement the guitar and voice with drum beats or percussion, some low end, harmonica, fuzz, and well-timed vocals that push each song further and further along their trajectories. These full band tacks are the ones that work the best, but they are also in the minority on Prodigy.
Kurt Vile is obviously a raw talent with a lot of ideas, but perhaps this works as a detriment when left to his own devices. The tracks with fuller arrangements are the more interesting and surprising tracks here, and they suggest Vile would do well to seek out other strong personalities to write and record with. He has made a point to say how much time was spent layering and working these tracks up, but sometimes it’s really difficult to think he put in much effort at all. While groups like Pavement or Dinosaur Jr. played around with this slacker ethos, it worked for them because their songs were built to last. Too often, the tracks on Childish Prodigy sound more like houses of cards, barely held together by the hype.