Philadelphia singer-songwriter KURT VILE (yes, that is his real name) makes his Matador debut with "Childish Prodigy." His second album (the first came out on the tiny Gulcher label, vinyl on Woodsist), it is a rich tapestry of rock and folk sounds, occasionally lo-fi, occasionally lustrous, hitting touchstones from Tom Petty to Street Legal-era Dylan to Spacemen 3 to Skip Spence. "Childish Prodigy" is more diverse than its predecessor, and ranges from pounding rockers like "Hunchabck" and "Freak Train" to gorgeous folky numbers like "Overnight Religion" and the soaring trumpet in "Amplifier." This is an absorbing and addictive record with layers and layers of discovery.
Review by Jason Lymangrover
Don't judge a book by its cover. Kurt Vile's long-haired hippie appearance may suggest West Coast roots -- even though he's actually a Philadelphian -- but his sound comes straight out of the underbelly of the Big Apple. With a slack-singing style reminiscent of Lou Reed or Alan Vega, and his vocals doused in slap-back reverb, the songs on Childish Prodigy shift between gritty numbers driven by guitar fuzz and steady ballads backed by one-key baritone drones. If this sounds a bit derivative of the Velvets, well, it is and it isn't. Vile and his backing band the Violators are knowledgeable students of the CBGB school of rock, circa Son of Sam, but just when you think you have them pegged as leather-clad street hoodlums on "Freak Train," a shuffling Roland 707 groove topped with a distortion wall and tense yelps ("I've never been so insulted in my whole life! Shit!"), they double back the other way with the mellow, fingerpicked circles of "Blackberry Song." The '70s New York scene makes up a big chunk of this album, but Vile's unique as a visionary with his own sound and a wide range of voices that turn from rambunctious to innocent in a blink. Childish Prodigy is split between drunken caterwauling and quiet hangover-recovery sessions, and both sides of the spectrum are fantastic. The band's spirit is captured perfectly, courtesy of Jeff Zeiglar's open-sounding recording style, and the indie underground rarely seems this fresh and free.
Philadelphia singer/songwriter (and owner of one of the best rock names around) Kurt Vile is part of a group of newcomers to Matador, an intriguing freshman class that also includes spooky synth-poppers Cold Cave and sunny new romantics Girls. But Vile differs significantly in style from these other acts, with a sound that draws heavily on the road-weary classic rock and folk of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and even Tom Petty, but is constructed with the lo-fi bedroom-recording techniques of someone like Ariel Pink. His two albums released in the last year (Constant Hitmaker and God Is Saying This to You) felt comfortable and well-worn like an old pair of jeans and produced a summer jam last season with the very catchy "Freeway".
But with an increased profile, the stakes are a bit higher for Childish Prodigy, his first Matador release and a record that offers some noticeable differences in sound and approach from his previous two. About half of the songs here are recorded in the same manner as before-- Vile on his own-- but for the remaining tracks he's brought in his touring band, the Violators, to flesh them out with additional instrumentation, creating some more depth and balance. The other key distinction is that Vile has opted for a much cleaner sound this time around, mostly doing away with the scuzz coating of past jams (though traces of distortion still remain here and there) and, as a result, Childish Prodigy feels more straightforward, perhaps even more professional in certain ways.
While I wouldn't criticize anyone for wanting to work outside the confines of lo-fi, it's not always the best look for Vile, as the added sheen draws away some of the charm of his earlier work. Regardless, he displays the same unique ability to tap into the feeling of classic rock-- the familar, comforting quality of that music embedded in anyone who grew up with a radio-- and the best songs here, most of which come during the record's stronger front half, play off that with a punk spirit. Opener "Hunchback" invites the full band in for some swampy stoner-rock boogie while the janglier, almost country-western "Overnite Religion" locks down a solid, melodic groove. Others, like "Blackberry Song", succeed with simple strumminess, but eventually the record begins to veer off course around the midway point.
One gets the sense that Vile is a prolific songwriter, able to knock out a bunch of tracks in one sitting, and almost all of Childish Prodigy has an on-the-fly nature to it, almost as if he's making the tracks up as he goes along. Sometimes that's impressive, like on the repetitive krautrock-arranged "Freak Train", but there's an amorphous quality to these songs that can also make for a difficult listen. Vile lets his guitar and vocals ramble throughout tracks, usually without breaking for a chorus or momentum shift, and lesser material like "Heart Attack" and "Amplifier" suffers, feeling meandering and structureless. This imbalance feels even more evident when he offers up a song like "He's Alright", with its acoustic guitar and pedal steel flourishes, that works great for its directness. Vile certainly has the talent and ability to churn out tunes, and with a little focus and editing his best batch is most likely ahead of him.
— Joe Colly, October 8, 2009