Album Review: Kurt Vile – Square Shells [EP]




Way back in 2009, Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile released the appropriately titled Childish Prodigy for Matador. Now, before releasing another LP, he’s dropping by with a short-player that’s less short than it is concise. After dialing up the rock for his debut, Vile returns closer to the bedroom recorded psych-folk that came before it.

Put plainly, Vile knows how to record. From opener “Ocean City”, Vile masterfully pares his songs down, finding the right instrumentation and technique to go with his melody. The dreamy, double-tracked, and reverbed vocals fit the simple guitar progression, adding a level of depth and sincerity. The Devendra Banhart-esque lyrics of love and friendship are sweet enough, but the ray-gun coo synth additions towards the end of the song keep the song from wallowing in sentimentality, spacy, and fun.

“Invisibility: Nonexistent” follows, opening with drum machine. Here, instead of the lo-fi acoustic guitar on the opener, Vile cleans the recording up, the acoustic angular and bright. The lyrics are depressed, yet without sounding twee or doomed.  “I find it in a dog, find it in a drug, I find it but I don’t know where to put it, then it’s gone”, he croons, before seemingly accepting flying into outer space as the only exit, his “transport” arriving as heavily delayed synths emulate UFO beams reaching down. The interplay of lyrics and music is crucial, his savvy technique adding a powerful layer.

“Losing Momentum (For Jim Jarmusch)” warbles and wanders like many of indie filmmaker Jarmusch’s protagonists, moving around at their own pace, trying to find something to hold onto. Next, Vile finger picks through “I Wanted Everything”, his voice echoing and low like Leonard Cohen. There’s something so very Cohen about the song’s best line, as well: “I wanted everything, but I think that I only got most of it.”

The lyrics never get too cheesy – though, by all rights, they might read that way. “I Know I Got Religion” features the gem “Now I stopped using picks, nothing between me and my guitar. Now I’m strumming away, every day. When I feel blue, I write a strummer for you.” With these lines about intimate connection between instrument and musician, musician and music, musician and listener, the guitar is simple, straightforward, non-stop. He doesn’t want to give a second away, showing you how much he cares. Synth-carousel instrumental “The Finder” seems to break the flow a little bit, but it’s inoffensive, lilting, climax-less.

The EP closes out with “Hey Now, I’m Movin”, a post-freakout wash of folk chords strummed slowly and smoothly, “yeahs” tossed off left and right. The simple, alternating chords plunk one-two, one-two, harmonicas flowing through the haze. The whole thing drives forward into the fog, uncertain of its future but sure that it’s not going to stop. The fluttering fade-out is lush, full, encompassing.

Whether the next LP will bring back the heavier, fuller side of Vile’s sound is yet to be seen. But, a disc like this, even as an EP, makes you wish he could keep making them this way for a while.