July 27 2011 10:49 AM

He's awkward, aloof and anything but trendy. So, why do people love Kurt Vile?

kurt_vile_shawn_brackbill
Kurt Vile
Photo by Shawn Brackbill
David Lee Roth once famously said that critics love Elvis Costello because Costello looks like a rock critic. At the time, the always-hyperbolic Roth probably just didn't understand anything that didn't have tits or a guitar solo. But the comment still speaks volumes, especially in the study of Kurt Vile.

Vile, a singer-songwriter from Philadelphia, is, at the moment, a critics' darling thanks to his fourth full-length LP, the recently released Smoke Ring for my Halo. If we're to believe Roth's logic, Vile's popularity among discerning music fans has something to do with him being the consummate anti-rock star: His real appeal can be traced not to all the things he is, but, rather, all the things he's not.

From a pop standpoint, he's not writing anything that's immediately accessible. As a performer, he's often stationary and ungainly, hidden behind a mass of long, stringy hair and barely moving unless it's to step on one of his many guitar pedals. As a lyricist, he writes foreboding and often nonsensical prose, recycling lyrics and rarely rhyming. And as a singer, he's no Aretha Franklin—he delivers his words in a hokey, country-esque tone, adding occasional yelps and screams. A modern-day Holden Caulfield, he once described himself as the “king of acting awkward”; The Village Voice calls him a “virtuoso of self pity.”

So, what's to like?

“What else am I going to do?” Vile asks in a phone interview. “A really sugary-sweet happy song? Think of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town or Townes van Zandt or [Bob] Dylan's Time Out of Mind. Those are the most beautiful things. I think someone can relate to that more.”

Vile's music, much like the man himself, is all about looking beyond immediate aesthetics. Roth may be able to execute a wicked onstage high kick and looks better in codpiece-accented spandex pants than just about anybody, but take away Eddie Van Halen, Eddie's brother and the pudgy bass player, and there's not much left.

Vile's lack of pretense and posturing is his most appealing attribute. Fans like him because he's not only relatable, in the “our band could be your life” sense, but also because he doesn't try too hard to come across as anything more than what he is. Vile's fine with listeners taking away whatever feelings the music happens to inspire, but he says his music, and especially his lyrics, are often misunderstood. A lot of times, his humor is mistaken for weariness.

“You know, I'm proud of the lyrics, but when my wife read them, she said something like, ‘Yeah, if someone didn't know you, they'd think you were a really dark dude,'” he says. “So, maybe for the next record, I'll think about not making it too sarcastic. There's some darkness in there, but it's never totally doom.”

Vile started out playing haunting bedroom folk on his first two records, 2008's Constant Hitmaker and 2009's God is Saying This to You, passing out homemade CD-Rs to bands like Sonic Youth. As a guitarist, he looked up to Beck and Thurston Moore and even acts like Cracker and Smashing Pumpkins. But as a lyricist, he was more influenced by performers like Burt Jansch, Anne Briggs and Leonard Cohen.

His first album for indie label Matador, 2009's Childish Prodigy, was a startling departure. While it included some of his signature acoustic ballads, the album's best tracks (“Monkey” and the anthemic “Freak Train”) incorporated a full band, an electric sound and a more unrestrained vocal delivery. It wasn't exactly Dylan plugging in at Newport, but some of his more coffeehouse-inclined fans were taken aback. He recently described Smoke Ring (which came out in March) as an “epic folk album,” but it reflects a consummation of the two styles, balancing gorgeous folk (“Baby's Arms,” “Peeping Tomboy”) and Neil Young-style rockers (“Puppet to the Man,” “Jesus Fever”), all with a seemingly new-found ear for pop hooks.

“The whole record has folk roots, because it's acoustically based,” Vile says. “But there's definitely rock and psychedelic undertones. That's just one way I've described it compared to Childish Prodigy, which has more punk and rock-roots and psychedelic overtones.”

Whatever musical direction he travels in the future, it seems Vile will always maintain that authentic appeal. His songs come from dark places, but they make listeners feel better about their own dark feelings. That's what separates the artists from the showmen—the David Lee Roths of the world from the Elvis Costellos.

“There's always going to be trials in life. It's hard, but if there was a super-happy time, you might not be writing music,” Vile says. “And if you were, maybe they weren't that good.”

Kurt Vile and The Violators' July 30 show at The Casbah with Thurston Moore and Hush Arbors is sold out. kurtvile.com

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