December 12, 2013 5:43 pm

Kurt Vile, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London – review

The man can barely sing, but the pleasures of this show came chiefly from the guitars

He plucked and picked his acoustic and electric guitars nimbly, his band, the Violators, were a trio of multitasking wizards, and his songs were drifty, dreamy, subtly structured things that looped and circled and gained momentum. So far, so good.

The only problem lay in the sounds that emerged from behind the long curtain of droopy hair flopping across the face of Kurt Vile (yes, indeed, it does seem to be his real name). For Vile is a man who can barely sing, whose voice is both whiny and scratchy, a dry growl of incomprehensible slurs and mumbles punctuated by the occasional “whoop”. As far as could be discerned, he might have been reciting the terms and conditions of his health insurance policy.


IN Music

Does it matter? After all, pop is littered with non-singing singers. Bob Dylan has spent years getting away with the murder of his own repertoire. But in Vile’s case I think it does: his music requires something richer and warmer and more comprehensible, something that this shy, skinny 33-year-old from Philadelphia clearly cannot deliver. There are faint hints in his voice of Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, of John Mellencamp’s rootsy rumble, but no more than that; if you haven’t heard him, imagine what it would sound like if Muttley from Wacky Races were to front a rock band. It hasn’t, however, held him back: this gig was pretty full, and he has released five moderately successful albums under his own name, as well as two with his old band, The War on Drugs.

Whatever: the pleasures of this warmly received show came chiefly from the guitars in the hands of Vile and his bandmate Rob Laakso. On extended, protracted (but in a good way) songs such as “KV Crimes”, their guitars meshed, thrummed, jangled, roared and glowed, between them creating a sound that was richly textured and quintessentially American. All this was achieved with the help of a battery of pedals and foot-switches that Vile operated like a sword-dancer, dipping his foot, tapping his toe.

This guitar-driven approach achieved its apotheosis on “Goldtone”, from this year’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze album, a mesmerising song that spun out for minutes on end in a shimmering tapestry of interweaving guitar patterns, driven by a simple pulse. Beautiful. Best of all, for most of it, Kurt Vile wasn’t singing.

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