Philadelphia's Kurt Vile has made a lot of progress in the past few years. Toward what isn't always clear. His work takes him in two directions that sometimes overlap and sometimes don't: writing respectable rock songs and taking frizzy home-recording adventures.
Parts of 2009's Childish Prodigy demonstrate Vile's ability to pull just-plain-nice folk songs or scuzzy rockers out of the mix, a strength he and his band the Violators will likely emphasize May 21 at the High Noon Saloon. Still, that doesn't quite point to where he went in 2010 and 2011.
With the opener of 2011's Smoke Ring for My Halo, "Baby's Arms," he signs up to make a mellow folk-rock album. The result is more emotionally enduring than you might expect at first. It can take a couple of listens to get past the laconic sarcasm. At least one reviewer has compared Vile to the late, sleepy-terse comedian Mitch Hedberg, and you can hear that in the opening lines of "In My Time": "In my time I was young and crazy/Sure I didn't know shit, but now I'm lazy."
Such lyrics can feel like a dead end, but try to roll with it. Whatever he's reflecting on, the music and Vile's vocal melody reflect a real warmth that makes the song stick.
His gentle but thoroughly fleshed-out acoustic arrangements ensure there's something comforting to sink into, even on "Runner Ups," whose chorus could be self-pitying comedy: "My best friend's long gone, but I've got runner-ups." It's customary for young songwriters to try to sound wise and battered and pious beyond their years, so it's frankly refreshing that Vile tempers that with openly smart-assed moments.
The 2010 EP Square Shells shows Vile's acoustic side emerging in messier but almost equally charming fashion. It's also got a bit of that plainspoken vagueness, on "I Know I Got Religion": "The friends that I had played too cool, I cut them off from afar," he sings over a rich acoustic-guitar jangle.
If there's some gray area between earnestness and detachment, Vile certainly sounds comfortable and grounded there.