With Childish Prodigy, his debut for indie-juggernaut Matador, Kurt Vile stretches and pulls the increasingly annoying “lo-fi” tag into interesting new shapes, distancing himself from his Woodsist-kin, who seem content to blanket their pop-punk and folk with sheets of tape hiss. Instead, Vile creates dense layers of texture, lo-fidelity only in the sense that the sounds refuse easy pop categorization, echoing and blending endlessly, blurring the lines between his reverb-soaked vocals and the intricate web of keys, guitars, trumpets, and clattering percussion buzzing and twitching underneath them. In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent in approach of another “lo-fi” landmark, The Microphones’ seminal album The Glow Pt. 2, which a production pal of mine once lauded as “a ‘lo-fi’ record for hi-fi headphones.”
Vile splits his time between the road-trip pop of Constant Hitmaker and God Is Saying This To You, the AM-radio classic rockisms of his other band, War on Drugs, and the blues-boogie of his recent EP with backing band The Violators. Tellingly, members of the Violators and War on Drugs are present, amping up the VU/Stooges-homage “Hunchback,” which finds Vile howling and testifying about fish drowning out of water over a strutting, fuzzed riff, his vocals careening into red with snarling menace. “Monkey” finds the band playing it arena-rock stately; it’s the kind of tune that someone like Pete Yorn would kill to write, but whose scrub-and-shine methods would rob the song of personality. It’s a chord progression epic enough to work for U2, but Vile and co. play it like they’re The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Vile indulges his acoustic, finger-picking folk side on “Blackberry Song,” with a gentle, shuffling melody showcasing that, no matter how he adorns his songs in noise and masking, his core remains rooted in rustic-Americana. "Your blackberries grow so wild/ Pick the best ones off the bush," he sings with guilelessness. “Inside Lookin’ Out,” featuring little more than a stomping kick drum, shaker, and multi-tracked vocals, roars with its refrain, "I got the blues so bad/my feet don’t walk," a blaring harmonica reminding us that Bruce Springsteen was trying to do Suicide when he made Nebraska.
“Goodbye Freaks” ends the record, and it’s a telling track to end with. The sweeping, phased drum-machine tones are some of the brightest on the record, and the shimmering synths and oh-so-slight saxophone and trumpet flourishes gently suggest melody rather than aggressively state one. Vile doesn’t sing a single line on the song, instead exploring vast instrumental vistas. It’s a bold trick for a singer/songwriter to pull, but just the sort of thing that sets Vile apart from the flock, a faded vision of a white guy with an acoustic guitar who is somehow never boring, never sinks to gentrified sterility, and never ceases to surprise.
2. Dead Alive
3. Overnite Religion
4. Freak Train
5. Blackberry Song
7. Heart Attack
9. Inside Lookin' Out
10. He's All Right
11. Goodbye Freaks