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Kurt Vile turns out ‘fried or sizzled out’ rock tunes

Kurt Vile
FILE – Kurt Vile performs during the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas on March 17, 2018. Vile’s ninth album, “watch my moves,” released earlier this month.
Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP, File

Kurt Vile says he’s always thinking about making catchy music — yet his attempts usually end up sounding fried or sizzled out.

It’s an apt description of this Philadelphia-based songwriter and guitarist’s vibe, amiable and hypnotic, the songs alone seemingly capable of producing a contact high. Vile’s new disc, his ninth, marks a professional turning point if not a musical one.

After years where Vile was the quintessential indie rock artist, his new “(watch my moves)” is being marketed and distributed by Verve Records, a label best known for its jazz heritage and Jon Batiste’s recent Grammy-winning album.

“It’s not as much of an outlier as people would think,” said Jamie Krents, the label’s chief executive. “Verve was Velvet Underground’s home. I’m a huge Kurt Vile fan so him signing to Verve has been incredibly meaningful to me.”

Vile said he was searching for a new recording home, and the timing was right when Verve approached him.

“I like that it’s not an indie rock label,” he said. “I like to be connected to classic jazz things. It’s just a label anyway, literally and metaphorically.”

The association has done nothing to change his music. If anything, “(watch my moves)” looks more inward, reflecting a time that Vile was home with his wife and two daughters during the pandemic and recording in a newly-built home studio.

He’s a strong-willed dad. His daughters, ages 9 and 11, are home-schooled (his wife is a former teacher) and he keeps them away from phones or other screens.

“I was happy to live a normal life and be a normal dad,” he said. “I was missing something. Turns out we were all missing something, missing just being a normal dad who was there everyday.”

New songs such as “Like Exploding Stones” and “Hey Like a Child” offer a spaced-out sound behind Vile’s deadpan vocals, often said as much as sung.

Lyrically, Vile “often will just narrate the contents of his head,” critic Kitty Empire once wrote. Describing, as he does at one point, “playin’ in the music room in my underwear,” verges on too much information. He opens “Say the Word” with a description: “I wrote the words to this song drivin’ from Philly to Amherst.”

You can feel the satisfaction when he talks about taking a trip to a gig where he supports an artist he’s frequently been compared to.

“Gonna open up for Neil Young,” he sings. “Man, life can sure be fun. Imagine if I knew this when I was young.”

Asked about his influences, Vile refers to a documentary where Tom Petty answers the same question by saying, “the radio.” He began writing songs at age 14 when his father gave him a banjo — he wanted a guitar — and played in bands together in the 2000s with his pal Adam Granduciel, frontman of The War on Drugs. They parted friends, both wanting to concentrate on their own music.

“Most of my influences are things you can play over and over again,” Vile said. “They have some kind of a groove there, where you don’t have to stop.”

But it’s hardly aimless. Krents considers Vile a master guitar player, with his own distinct phrasing and sound. The new “Hey Like a Child” builds from a particularly memorable riff.

In Australia, Courtney Barnett bought Vile’s 2011 album “Smoke Ring for My Halo” because she liked the cover. Six years later, the two made their own album together, “Lotta Sea Lice.”

“We’re both obsessives, and his musical obsessions are infectious,” Barnett said. “He showed me lots of amazing music that I had never heard. And humor was our other connector. Kurt makes me laugh more than anybody in the world.”

She said she likes Vile’s songwriting “because it’s so him, and he’s unafraid to be that. He really creates this entire other world within his songs.”

With 92 million streams on Spotify, Vile’s 2015 song “Pretty Pimpin” is his most popular. It boosts the tempo — one critic even called it “jaunty” — but fits neatly into his aesthetic.

On the new album Vile — that’s his real name, by the way, even though it seems like the kind of rock ‘n roll stage name that Johnny Rotten would admire — covers an obscure Bruce Springsteen song, “Wages of Sin.” His song, “Stuffed Leopard” also quotes Springsteen’s “Candy’s Room” — he happened to be listening to it while writing.

Verve’s Krents said he hopes to expand Vile’s audience, particularly overseas. He also hopes Vile’s signing sends a message to other artists and listeners that Verve is more eclectic than they might have considered.

Krents said the company let Vile make the recording that he wanted and didn’t try to influence him in any direction.

“We didn’t sign him to change him,” he said. “We signed him to amplify what he does.”

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