With a breezy nonchalance often mistaken for stoner lethargy, Kurt Vile has spent the last twenty plus years dreaming up songs in the same vein as his blue collar heroes: John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, J. Mascis, and Tom Petty, to name a few.
Proudly hailing from Philadelphia, he carries the torch for fans of indie rock while always paying respects to his home nation’s biggest hitters. Making music since he was given a banjo by his dad aged fourteen, Vile eventually partnered with Adam Granduciel and formed The War On Drugs in the early 2000s.
Before long, he wanted to show the world what he was capable of with the spotlight solely on him. Relying heavily on a Bob Dylan-inspired fingerpicking style that forms the bedrock of his sound, he was soon getting the attention he deserved, touring the world and taking names with his backing band, the Violators.
Climb aboard the freak train as we unpack 12 choices to show you what KV does best.
The opening song from Vile’s debut album ‘Constant Hitmaker’ (a name he gave himself with tongue pressed firmly against cheek) is a two and a half minute long, care-free blast that introduces his early fast-and-loose sound. Described by the man himself as “super poppy”, it was the first song KV recorded in a studio after loaning money from his mum. After he’d recorded it, he immediately asked himself “who am I ripping off here?” given how easy it was to lay down. With playful lyrics like “I got a trumpet, I know where to dump it”, ‘Freeway’ is the sound of Vile finding his feet as a solo artist, and enjoying every minute of it.
11. Dust Bunnies
Vile’s go-to guitar when it comes to plugging in is a ‘64 Fender Jaguar. He admits to writing most of his electric riffs on it, including KV Crimes and Shame Chamber, but none make better use of it than 2015’s ‘Dust Bunnies’. Opening with a clean, reverb-heavy chiming guitar riff, the song soon finds a tight rock groove, accompanied by mellow ‘70s-sounding keys. Produced by the late Rob Laakso, multi-instrumentalist and long-serving Violator, lyrically it concerns hangovers and feeling “totally whacked”. Vile lifts words directly from Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’ as he admits he “don’t know much about history and don’t know much about the shape I’m in”. The song’s title refers to his migraine, which he compares to “a shop vac coughin’ dust bunnies.”
10. Freak Train
The fourth song from 2009’s breakthrough Childish Prodigy is a stomping, riotous rail journey through Vile’s warped mind. The first album he made for Matador Records is packed with the excitement of a solo artist who just landed a new deal. ‘Freak Train’ bulges and swells with new instruments and expanded sounds. Led by a Roland 707 drum machine and a guitar riff dripping in distortion, it pounds with urgency as Vile sings “I’m just trying to ride this train and make it home tonight.” Featuring layered feedback from friend and frequent early collaborator Adam Granduciel, it also finds room for a wailing sax solo from Vile’s mainstay Violator Jesse Trbovich.
9. Baby’s Arms
After much touring to support his third release, Vile finally found himself at home with enough time to write some new songs on his newly purchased Martin acoustic. He’s said of the period he wrote Smoke Ring For My Halo during that he was “growing in a lot of ways”. That maturity is evident throughout, but especially on its opener ‘Baby’s Arms’. While his previous records showed his songwriting flare, he didn’t hide his giddy exuberance and tendencies to goof around. ‘Baby’s Arms’ is a serious song played straight, leaving just enough room for Vile’s earnest, sometimes awkward lines like “cause except for her, you know, as I’ve implied.” A fingerpicked, introspective number for his one true love.
8. Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)
With a title inspired in part by Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’, ‘Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)’ is an ode to the leafy suburban spot in Philadelphia where Vile currently lives. Featuring gliding synths and slide guitar, the song gently moves along at its own laid-back pace. The song’s lyrics “been gone but now I’m a just way gone, watch my moves” inspired the title of the 2022 album this easygoing jam is taken from. Vile originally wrote ‘Mount Airy Hill’ on his organ, and like the rest of the record, laid it down in his home-studio OKV Central. “I was 100% guard down, just doing my thing,” he said of the album’s recording sessions.
7. One Trick Ponies
By the time 2018’s Bottle It In arrived, Vile had settled down. Now a dad and with a devoted fan base that had more or less crowned him king of soothing guitar alt-rock, he no longer needed to prove himself. This gave him the space to indulge. The record’s title track is an eight minute woozy jam, and elsewhere on the record he offers whimsical ruminations that plod along casually. ‘One Trick Ponies’ is an easygoing celebration of KV’s friends, bandmates, and anyone else who’s been along for the ride. “Loved you all a long, long time,” Vile sings during this sunny, joyful affair. He’s eventually backed up by soulful group vocals that bring a welcome layer of gospel blues to the mix.
6. Loading Zones
If you’re a Sonic Youth fan, you might recognise that irresistible warble that starts this one off. It’s the same Ludwig [Phase II] guitar synth the New York quartet use on ‘The Diamond Sea’, and it’s no coincidence. A known Youth fan, Vile has said the song he’s borrowed a sound from is one of his favorites. ‘Loading Zones’ is a straight up rocker, and surely the first song about taking advantage of his hometown’s temporary parking bays. “I park for free!” Vile chants repeatedly as his band wigs out behind him. The loading zones he sings about are really a metaphor for “owning your own town, knowing it’s like the back of your hand.”
5. Blackberry Song
‘Blackberry Song’ is another pick from Childish Prodigy that makes our list. It’s a hypnotic number that loops open-tuned, fingerpicked guitar riffs together to create a sound that earned Vile fans the world over. His lyrics here are poetic, delivered with a Nick Drake-like reverence that makes the song feel as earnest as it does personal. Lines like “my beloved blackberry, my love for you floats free, leave yourself in sound” are gently sung, paired with sparse percussion that allow the instruments to breathe while Vile’s guitar duels with Adam Granduciel’s. A champion of his home city’s music scene, Vile claims the mix of classic folk and indie-rock drone was purely Philadelphian: “we were tapped into this thing in Philly. A sort of psychedelic thing combined with classic whatever.”
4. Over Everything
It’s easy to see why Vile and Barnett became friends. Geographically the pair are continents apart, but they share similarities in style, sound and mutual influences. Australia’s Barnett makes garage-rock with heavy grunge undertones, while Vile’s boyish love of big guitars, from Neil Young to Dinosaur Jr, is easy to hear. The two of them also make music from their perspective — existential and observational. ‘Over Everything’ from 2017’s Lotta Sea Lice plays out like a hungover conversation on a Sunday afternoon, describing how they each spend time on their lonesome. “I speed-read the morning news and come up with my own little song,” Barnett sings. A collaboration between two certified slackers.
3. How Lucky (w. John Prine)
John Prine was a singer-songwriter who came up through Chicago’s folk-revival scene. After opening for Kris Kristofferson as his country career was taking off, Prine was signed by Atlantic Records and tipped to become the next Bob Dylan. He never reached the heights as some of his peers, but his songs are sacred to those who know and love them. ‘How Lucky’ originally appeared on Prine’s 1979 release Pink Cadillac. Always a huge fan, Vile said working with his hero was “probably the single most special moment in my musical life.” The pair both learned to play aged 14, and their styles perfectly suit each other for this moving cover recorded not long before Prine passed away in 2020.
Recommended: Our pick of the best John Prine songs (essential listening).
2. Wakin On A Pretty Day
Vile admits to finding his feet while recording Smoke Ring, but claims follow-up release Wakin On A Pretty Daze is “just 100% my voice all the time”. This song opens the record, and at nine and a half minutes long it’s clear to see Vile took his time with it. Produced by John Agnello, a recording veteran who’s worked with Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth, his style was a natural fit for an album packed full of rich, warm guitar work and oscillating solos. ‘Wakin On A Pretty Day’ is about little more than exactly that, as Vile ponders “living low, lackadaisically so” and wonders “what wisecracks I’m going to drop along the way (today).”
1. Pretty Pimpin
Topping our list is ‘Pretty Pimpin’. After spending five years signed to Matador, the label suggested Vile write a single. This was his response. As he puts it: “I was trying to write a hit song, and I did.” The Philly native might have taken heavy influence from the likes of Townes Van Zandt and John Fahey to discover his sound, but he’s made no bones about his ambition to write popular songs. This toe-tapper from 2015’s B’lieve I’m Goin Down finds Vile unable to recognise “the man in the mirror,” that is, until he realizes he’s just staring at himself. Less drug haze and more about being “mentally exhausted,” it remains a live favorite thanks to its steady country groove and accessible, jangly licks.