Dazed and Confident

Wakin on a Pretty Daze… “Wakin on a Pretty Day”… I don’t blame Kurt Vile for not being able to pick just one of these titles. Both describe exactly how listening to the many long, psychedelic passages on the Philly-born songwriter’s fifth full-length album feels.

Coming off of his most concise album yet, 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, Vile seems to go in the opposite direction with Pretty Daze. More than half of the album’s eleven songs run over six minutes. But though the songs are some of Vile’s longest yet, they don’t rely as much on meditative, repetitive power; instead Vile seems to have learned to make the most of his time in re-exploring longer compositions, incorporating Halo’s focus and creating enough subtle change within each song to keep listeners’ attention without ever overloading them or losing control.

It seems like no matter where you read about Kurt Vile, the same names always come up: Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, John Fahey… While Vile admittedly has often shared their open-road “classic rock in spring/freeway in mind” sentimentality, his music has also often been very solitary, even claustrophobic, with a more personal bedroom feel.

But if Vile ever sounded close to any of those influences, it’s on Wakin on a Pretty Daze. Maybe it’s because Vile doesn’t bludgeon listeners with reverb-soaked stoner psych like he did on 2009’s chunky Childish Prodigy. Now, combined with a very “live off the floor” feel throughout the album, we can hear that Vile’s songs have a little more weight. “Pure Pain” is about as clear cut as Vile has ever sounded with sonics anchored by its boxy drums and guitars that don’t ring out. The inclusion of cowbell on songs like the slightly twangy rocker “Shame Chamber” and “KV Crimes” doesn’t hurt either.

As close as Vile comes to heroes of classic rock and folk though, he maintains his distinctness. Delicate finger-picking finds its way into “Pure Pain”, and Vile continues to mumble his way through most of Daze. And though “KV Crimes” is his most classic-sounding song, it never reaches its anthemic potential with Vile’s sedated drawl and languorous drums. It’s for the best though: arena rock would not exactly become Vile.

While his lo-fi, loop-heavy home-recordings – like the ones that comprised most of his first album Constant Hitmaker (2008) – have mostly shown glimmers of rough yet potentially fruitful sketches for ideas, Vile seems to pull it all together here. “Air Bud” and “Goldtone” are probably the best mixes of his electronic experimentations and his hi-fi sensibilities, giving his electronic dabblings an exciting freshness.

Most recurrent on Daze is Vile’s trademark escapism and introspection. “I want to live all the time in my fantasy infinity. There I will never be abandoned. There I will have a handle against everything from ever happening to me,” he sings on “Girl Called Alex”. And on “Was All Talk”, he recalls better days: “There was a time in my life that is gone but some time I still go back to.”

But other times, Kurt Vile sings with purpose and confidence. Despite pining about being “crestfallen, dejected” and “daydreaming through the dark days” on “KV Crimes”, he also declares, on that same song: “I think I’m ready to claim what’s mine rightfully.” And on “Was All Talk”, he reveals: “There was a time in my life when they thought I was all talk. Now, I’m being stalked by a guide, walkin’. I got the upper hand, walkin’,” like an oblique “fuck you” to his doubters. And on “Too Hard”, Vile has a realization: “Take your time, so they say, and that’s probably the best way to be.” Before the song’s over, he’s already convinced, passing on the advice: “So take your time, baby girl, ‘cause that’s – that’s the best of all. One day, you’ll believe me.”

Taking his time seems to have paid off on Pretty Daze. The drifty eight-minute “Too Hard” sounds like one of the late John Fahey’s meditative, electronically detached, latter-day soundscapes. Songs like “Too Hard” defy your expectations of an album called Wakin on a Pretty Daze: instead of heady effects and reverb, any dreaminess comes naturally from Vile’s airy melodies and arrangements, something he couldn’t have achieved by rushing or compacting details. Even straight-ahead songs like “Was All Talk”, which starts with an electric drumbeat and sounds like it’s going to shoot straight towards melodramatic Dark Wave, feel unrushed due to open note-picked guitars; the solid drum pattern keeps the song cruising at a pace just steady enough to watch all of the details pass by.

True to life, no one wakes up right away. Sometimes, it’s a long, groggy process with glimpses of clarity throughout. And blending the cloudiness of bleary morning-after eyes with brief moments of lucidity is exactly what listening to Wakin on a Pretty Daze feels like. As the phrases “wakin on a pretty daze/day” imply, Kurt Vile is in no rush to get anywhere, as he takes his time on the album’s many lengthy tracks, and listening to this album, you may find yourself equally at ease.

Dream on and wake up with Kurt Vile all at once live at the Biltmore Cabaret, along with the Fresh & Onlys and Steve Gunn, on May 11.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu