Watch & Listen

Kurt Vile & The Violators

Kurt Vile (real name) has slowly, quietly become one of the great American guitarists and songwriters of our time. Kurt was born in 1980, one of ten children, and raised in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. As a teenager, his bluegrass-loving father gifted him with a banjo, when what Kurt craved was a guitar – so he played it as if it were.

Bewitched by lo-fi figureheads like Beck, Pavement, and Smog, along with a love for classics like Petty, Creedence, and Neil Young, he recorded his first songs and self-distributed them on CD-R between 2003 and 2007. These were compiled on 2008’s Constant Hitmaker and the 2009 mini-album God Is Saying This To You… The dreamy and psychedelic tangles of damaged but still-lyrical songcraft announced a major new artist wandering in from the hinterlands.

The Violators (then featuring Adam Granduciel, with whom Vile had co-founded The War On Drugs) debuted on the 2009 EP The Hunchback, coming into their own on Childish Prodigy, Vile’s third album and his first for Matador. More violent, more vivid, more ecstatically ‘rock’ than anything in Vile’s catalogue, the album was a righteous leap forward. The album that followed, the breakthrough Smoke Ring For My Halo, was more reflective, something sun-dappled and sexy in softly strung-out strums like “Peeping Tomboy,” the kindred flipside to barnstormers like “Freak Train” off the previous record.

His fifth album, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, is a 69-minute double LP and Kurt’s defining statement to date. Where previous albums alternated between gorgeous fingerpicking and heavy guitar workouts, this album blends the two in dreamy, expansive songs that gradually unfurl like a massive flag. It is a record that would have sounded great 30 years ago, sounds great today, and will still sound great 30 years from now.

Angel Olsen

Many of the superlatives describing Angel Olsen refer to how seemingly little it takes for her to leave an audience speechless, even spellbound. But Olsen has never been as timid as those descriptors imply, and the noisy, fiery hints in her earlier work find a fuller expression on her newest LP, Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Here, Olsen sings with full-throated exultation, admonition, and bold, expressive melody. Also, with the help of producer John Congleton, her music now crackles with a churning, rumbling low end and a brighter energy.

Angel Olsen began singing as a young girl in St. Louis, where she explored the remarkable range of her voice and the places it could take her songwriting. Her self-released debut EP, "Strange Cacti," belied both that early period of discovery and her Midwestern roots. Cautious and homespun on the one hand, the EP transported us to a mystical, unrecognizable world on the other, and it garnered extensive praise for its enigmatic beauty. Olsen then went further on Half Way Home, her first full-length album (released on Bathetic Records), which mined essential themes while showcasing a more developed voice. Olsen dared to be more personal.

After extensive touring, Olsen eventually settled for a time in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, where she created "a collection of songs grown in a year of heartbreak, travel, and transformation." The new songs go on to tell us to leave, or to high-five a lover who is lacking, or to dance our way up and out of sorrow. Many of them also remain essentially unchanged from their bare beginnings. In leaving them so intact, a more self-assured Olsen is opening up to us, allowing us to be in the room with her at the very genesis of these songs, when the thread of creation is most vulnerable and least filtered. Our reward for entering this room are many head-turning moments and the powerful, unsettling recognition of ourselves in the weave of her songs.

This act of meaning-making recurs as a theme throughout the album, as the sublimating response to the power of negativity. In the song, "Stars", for example, Olsen wishes to "have the voice of everything" and in a moment of hatefulness and hurt realizes that the strength of fury results in the power she had been seeking all along. Thankfully for us, Olsen has decided to channel a lot of this newfound power into the ethereal, hypnotic performances of her new and revealing songs, sharing with us the full grace and beauty of her transformative moments.

People have written about roads for as long as they’ve been around. And before there were roads, they still wrote about travel and about landscape. Landscape is the stage upon which our greatest experiences and desires play out. Steve Gunn’s music has always embraced expanse and movement. It springs from the simple and profound relationship between humans and their environment. Eyes On The Lines is his most explicit ode to the blissful uncertainty of adventure yet.

Gunn’s roots in the underground run deep, from his days in GHQ to his collaborations with Black Twig Pickers and Mike Cooper. He’s toured and recorded with Michael Chapman, and released two remarkable duo albums with drummer John Truscinski. His solo ventures, emerging over the past decade and culminating most recently the highly-acclaimed Way Out Weather, have been pastoral, evocative affairs. Here he embraces his urban surroundings through a series of songs that fully showcase his extraordinary ability to match hooks to deftly constructed melodies. Gunn is a consummate guitarist, that rare fingerpicker who can harness the enigma of the American Primitive vernacular without lazily regurgitating it. His playing is inventive and full of personality. His instrumental virtuosity calls upon a vast library of technical skills at will, but he’s never showy — his riffs and runs are always in the service of the song at hand.

And what a pleasure to have this music presented to the wider public.

This song cycle melds thoughtful inquisitiveness with poetic reflection, fully embracing rhythmic uplift, allowing personal stories and impressions to live their own lives on their own terms. Gunn is more narrator than diarist; he pours real-life moments and real-life people into vibrant and evocative tales. Dreams and encounters spiral out – they form their own dramas and illuminate their own truths. Indeed, Eyes On The Lines works like a book of the finest short stories, its songs interlocking with an urgent necessity, forming an ever-questioning whole. In Gunn’s own words: “The music isn’t about me. It’s about characters, either real or fictional. It’s about images.”
And what are lines if not one of the foundational aspects of images? Lines on the road draw one’s attention to the lines comprising the landscape. Gunn’s music runs ahead and twists – like time, like the road itself. Guitar lines are highway lines are lines carved by the view out the window are the lines one waits in to get a quick meal on the way from one destination to another are lines one draws in the van to stay amused. It’s good to be out on the road and it’s good to be home, and each feeds into the other. This record sees lines run together and leap across one another.

He’s honest about the necessity of being comfortable in being lost. His music values the unknown, so it is always born of the present. We lose ourselves to find ourselves. With all of this comes humility. And gratitude. Listen to “Nature Driver,” a statement of thankfulness for the generosity of the plethora of kind souls who welcome travelers into their homes.

“Ancient Jules,” which opens the record, is a travel fantasy of a different sort. Built around a head-nodding motif, the song bobs and weaves its way through a tale which foregrounds the surprising joy that can come with a break – a deep sigh in the midst of an onrush, punctuated by the finest example of Gunn’s electric soloing to emerge yet. A song like “Conditions Wild” also rambles through strange clouds of roving. Interlocking strings, percussion, and vocals join in an irrepressible rush. This record is like that – the songs get lodged in one’s head because they’re catchy, but their atmosphere sends the mind reeling into memory and mystery.

These are songs you can take in quickly, but spend all the time in the world devouring. The very large and the very small are present in equal measure. The inability to categorize them within the avalanche of impotent diatribes that pass for categorization is a testament to their power.

Stories give us ways to discover meaning. They provide us with signposts – when we recognize our own lives within them, we clarify our existence. “Far from the world is the mystic fool,” Gunn sings on the opening track. The fool may be far from the world, but that doesn’t matter. The so-called fool is jacked in to the cosmos.

Matt Krefting
Holyoke, MA 2016


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