With a collection of seven songs, Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile reemerges after his triumphant 2009 Matador debut Childish Prodigy. The EP serves as a stopgap between full-length releases, and while it’s an apt rehashing of maybe three of the four styles of songcraft Vile has incontrovertibly mastered, it doesn’t boast the variety and punch of either of his previous two LPs, Childish Prodigy and 2008’s Woodsist/Gulcher Records release Constant Hitmaker.
The Vile style missing from Square Shells seems to be the one best explored with his backing band The Violators, as in the rollicking, testosterone-laden rompers like Childish Prodigy’s “Freak Train.” Especially live, experiencing “Freak Train” feels like being submerged in chaos, six things happening at once, and Vile, hidden behind his mane of hair, yelping and howling above it all. No track on Square Shells approaches its aggression or its drive, and though the characteristic Kurt Vile drone ebbs and flows throughout, it’s the gentler kind, the type we get during instrumental interludes “The Finder” and “Losing Momentum” — the latter is dedicated to filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (who, incidentally, will guest curate New York’s All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in September).
But the rest we expect from Vile is in ample supply; the double-tracked vocals, replete with reverb as if heard from the bottom of a lake, are as present as ever. This almost arena echo, combined with the very charm and confidence of Vile’s songwriting, makes these albums larger than life, something mythical and transcendent. “I Wanted Everything” perfectly exemplifies this; it’s one of Vile’s finger-pickers, the venue through which I think his virtuosity best shines. “I wanted everything, but I think I only got most of it,” he intones through the tape hiss. Even without his almost unmatched guitar-playing, the lyrical obliqueness and sarcasm he employs mixed alternately with teary-eyed earnestness would make him a favorite.
Accordingly, closer “Hey, Now I’m Movin,” in the end, proves the best of the EP with its sighing harmonica and dragging melody, an almost literally slowing song about moving forward that fades into layers of echo and sustained notes. And “Invisibility: Nonexistent” features a drum machine under acoustic guitar, one of the instrumental structures around which Vile’s solo work has always revolved. The song slithers from chord to chord, buoyed by acoustic strumming and his rueful croon. When it opens up into washes of electronic noise, the album title starts to make sense. It suggests the endlessness of the sea and the repetition of wave motion — and seeming impossibilities like square shells — all tied together into this little record, one that will ably carry us through until Vile can return with something more fleshed-out.