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"Square Shells EP"

Kurt Vile – Square Shells EP
14 June 2010, 18:00 Written by Matthew Haddrill

When Kurt Vile’s mini album God Is Saying This To You was re-issued last year, one reviewer quipped that he had cleaned up, the great booming vocal and acoustic guitar delivery sounding more like it was from a mine shaft than the bottom of the ocean. I think it was meant as a compliment? Crank up the volume on reverb-friendly tracks ‘Red Apples’ and ‘Beach On The Moon’, march across to the other side of your flat leaving the door wide open, the ‘cavernous’ effect is something Jim James of My Morning Jacket would be proud of. Truly awe-inspiring, “God is saying this to you …”

Matador have announced Kurt Vile’s latest 7-track EP Square Shells as a stepping stone release, but it’s a timely opportunity for the lo-fi artist from Philadelphia to divest himself of band and focus more on the songwriting, with some warm themes of friendship and loss. Some of this material may end up on the next album, scheduled for release in the autumn with legendary producer John Agnello at the controls, but in a more fleshed-out form. No need to worry then, and I don’t think impatient fans will be disappointed with this intriguing “work in progress” either.

So what actually is in progress on Square Shells? Many have confused the artist’s solo work with his earlier collaborations with Adam Granduciel on The War On Drugs. While that outfit was unmistakably indie-rock, Kurt Vile’s own basic sound has been crafted from many hours of home recordings, culminating in something much folkier and bluesy. Although still reflecting heartland American FM rock, his music is closer to the haunting folk essence which Springsteen nailed to ‘Nebraska’ rather than The Boss’s more uptempo ‘Born In The USA’. The experimental side of his work leans towards the blues and primitive traditions of artists like John Fahey, while the various flirtations with electronic sounds on his glorious debut ‘Constant Hitmaker’ suggest spacey German prog Can. Melding together many influences, the artist has produced a rich vein of lo-fi recordings in a relatively short space of time. Last year’s Matador release Childish Prodigy was something of a return to a more full-on rock sound, recorded and taken on tour with his backing band The Violators, but Square Shells shows us the earlier homespun work is still very close to the artist’s heart.

Most of the songs on the EP sound raw and deconstructed, you can imagine Vile bashing them out on his guitar, adding just the barest elements of keyboard or drum to get an idea of how they’d sound later. These are the sort of things he probably carries around in his head from one hotel room to the next. Two of the tracks are actually instrumental, ‘Losing Momentum’ and ‘The Finder’, the former dedicated to film-maker Jim Jarmusch, with long twangy guitar more befitting a cinema soundtrack and perhaps hinting at a another future direction for the artist.

On the rest of Square Shells, the singer enjoys the freedom to experiment with vocal styles without the need to compete with a band. He plays it straight folk on ‘Ocean City’, something of Bill Callahan (Smog) and Bob Pollard (Guided By Voices), a song celebrating friendship and then lamenting its loss. Contrast that with the sprawling 7-minute ‘Invisibility: Nonexistent’, more like the psychedelia of early Traffic or even Jim Morrison, the words punched out very cleanly at the beginning before the song arcs into a metronomic piece of Krautrock. His vocals are more recognizable on ‘I Wanted Everything’, an old man licking his wounds and counting the losses (“I wanted everything but I think I only got most of it … Lord willing if the creak don’t rise I’m gonna sit around till I get wise.”). Next up, ‘I Know I Got Religion’ is Neil Young ‘The Needle and The Damage Done’, the feelings of loneliness and alienation from drugs but salvation through music (autobiographical, possibly? “now I’m strumming away every day, when I feel blue I’ll write a strummer for you”). As he ruminates on life, Kurt Vile has found a tenderness in his singing which goes right to the heart of Square Shells.

The last few Springsteen albums have seen The Boss treading water. Kurt Vile, with his long grungy locks and DIY-ethic would seem an unlikely pretender to the throne, but this EP suggests an artist emerging and developing his songwriting craft, and not afraid to try out a few new things along the way to add to an already impressive canon of work … and anyway, as closing track ‘Hey Now I’m Movin’ reminds us, there’s always the great booming spectre of Nebraska to fall back on!

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