Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Release Date: April 9th, 2013
Label: Matador Records
When I first encountered Kurt Vile, somebody was handing me a copy of God is Saying This To You? and insisting I spend some time with it. The album’s cover art - a fog filled scene highlighted by a massive steam engine and mop-topped man - was then, and still remains, a mystery. And the music mostly matched the aesthetic: bleary-eyed lo-fi folk that relied on quaint lyrical tricks and a mixed bag of recording techniques that transformed the record from mundane into something novel.
Since that time, Vile has both methodically and steadily built his sound from the ground up, taking the same approach album to album as he does on each track therein. Gone are the minute and a half long ambient interludes - in fact, Wakin on a Pretty Daze packs just about as much music into a record as I can possibly remember. For however repetitive and hypnotic it so often is, Vile’s vagabond sound is never positioned as something exhaustive. When friend of the site Jeremy Larson wrote on Consequence of Sound that the nine-minute “Waking on a Pretty Day” “is about 40 minutes too short,” there was certainly merit to his argument, and to each listener’s benefit, Wakin on a Pretty Daze delivers another hour of that sound. Striking but reticent, Vile’s charming witticisms take on a whole new life on this record; the Philadelphia singer/songwriter is as confident as he has ever been.
How could he not be? With a happy, healthy family whom he spends most of his days with (a fact that he’s more than proud to share) Vile finally appears at peace with the world. More importantly, though, he finally has a proper band assembled, a group which helped record Wakin from start to finish. The addition of Rob Laasko as a full time guitarist and effects specialist has resulted in the incorporation of synthesizers and samples as a real driving force on the record. While that might sound like a huge deviation from previous albums, “Was All Talk” suggests that it may not be such a bad thing. Led with electronic drums a la The Cars, the track bursts with a vibrancy matched by few other Vile tracks, the signature sound of his guitar quickly finding its way to the forefront. These embellishments aren’t overwhelming - in fact, they contribute a significant amount towards building upon Vile’s already established sound, something he had carved out since “Freak Train.” On “Girl Called Alex,” the inclusion of organ sounds and subtle bursts of saxophone during each chorus never fundamentally detract from Vile’s folk-infused music, but it does provide a sort of head-bobbing quality that was sorely lacking on Smoke Ring For My Halo. While it’s probably lazy to call Vile’s sound “fun,” Wakin might be as close as we ever get to an upbeat record from him.
For as much as it sounds like a more revitalized Vile on this record, Wakin is not without its more revealing moments. “Too Hard” is more akin to earlier Vile, immediately bombarding the listener with intricate acoustic guitar patterns and foot stomps. In so many ways, “Too Hard” is a pledge of allegiance to himself, a renewing of bonds between his art and his life to hopefully become better within both. But mortality rules all in Vile’s world, a realization made too clear when he sings “life is like a ball of beauty / that makes you want to just cry / then you die.” But for all of his seriously macabre lines, Vile’s black humor remains an important presence on Wakin, particularly on “Shame Chamber,” one of the album’s most spirited and vocally varied tracks. The almost nonsensical nature to his dialogue, “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror / then again, why would I?” makes for something almost laughable as Vile yips and screams over his guitar throughout the track. Confidently self-deprecating: a shade that Vile wears better than most.
While he so often felt like a man adrift at life, hiding behind his mountain of hair and hunchback demeanor, Kurt Vile has changed his tune on Wakin on a Pretty Daze. His “KV” persona has matured, and with that his sound has evolved as well. The result? A record that gloriously demonstrates the power of personal songwriting and meticulous engineering. He might not present himself as such, but Vile is a perfectionist both in music and in life, and Wakin is the infallible result of both.