Strange semantics surround the Philadelphia-born guitarist, vocalist and home-recording devotee Kurt Vile. His name isn't an attempt to create a Johnny Rotten-like persona for his dreamy folk, pop and minimalist rock songs. Nor is it a play on 20th-century German composer Kurt Weill. It's his family's name, and there isn't a hint of irony in his voice when he explains it away. "Some people are shocked that it's real. Others just can't believe it," Vile says. "It never fails."
But irony is thick when he sings, "You tell me a good man is hard to find. What are you blind? Nevermind. Let's try to have a good time," in "Dead Alive" from Childish Prodigy, his third proper album and first for Matador Records. The lyrics are Dylan-esque in their rambling construction, but juvenile in their lazy delivery. When taken alongside Vile's starry-eyed guitar picking, swimming in reverb, other songs such as "Hunchback," "Overnite Religion" and "Freak Train," gel with clumsy beauty that's as captivating as it is perplexing.
That rich dichotomy prompted Matador owner Gerard Cosloy to call Vile "one of the more important figures in American music, circa 2009," in the label's press release. Despite his deliberate PR hyperbole, there's a sliver of truth in Cosloy's enthusiasm.
"I've really liked the way Kurt combines a defined folk-rock tradition with a backdrop that's far more expansive and in some cases downright experimental," Cosloy explains in an e-mail. "He's either a closet trad rocker gone avant or the other way around. Or neither. ... Some bits are really delicate; other moments are nothing short of explosive."
Childish Prodigy is a more rocking affair than the pop songs of his ’08 debut Constant Hitmaker, or the chain of CDRs he's released under his name and with the band War On Drugs. The album features more arrangements with his band, the Violators. Recorded on the heels of Constant Hitmaker, the album's title carries Vile's own ironic play on words. "I thought of Childish Prodigy as kind of a sequel," he offers. "The first album had such a cocky title, but it was really funny, which is kind of the idea with these records — come out swinging but make people laugh at the same time."
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Now I'm even more glad I didn't go.