in Compare/Contrast

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo / The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient (2011)

It’s interesting that both Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo and The War On Drugs’ Slave Ambient sat with Radiohead’s King of Limbs just outside of my Top Ten Albums of 2011. First, because they’re both quite a bit better than several albums that made my top ten that year (remember Cults?). But also because Philly boys Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel used to be bandmates in The War On Drugs just a few years prior, while 2011 marked a kind of turning point for both of these mainstays of 2010s indie rock.

Revisiting these albums, I couldn’t help but notice that these two singer-songwriters sound much more like each other than they would on subsequent releases. Smoke Ring For My Halo remains my favorite of Kurt Vile’s albums, and has a much dreamier production style than a lot of his subsequent work. Still, his emphasis on clever/goofy wordplay is on full display, while I’m not sure Vile ever quite topped himself in crafting a perfectly simple combination of music and lyrics as he did on album-opener “Baby’s Arms”. Also, there’s a sensitivity to songs like “Runner Ups” that I think got lost a bit as Vile’s songs got less acoustic and more electric as the decade wore on.

I would typically describe Kurt Vile’s songwriting as a little more direct and tangible than Adam Granduciel’s. So it’s refreshing to hear The War On Drugs in a somewhat more concise mode on Slave Ambient, while also hinting at the later soundscapes of Lost In The Dream and A Deeper Understanding. “Come To The City” is a particularly good example of Granduciel’s ability to create an epic groove and milk it for all the beauty and grandeur it’s worth. Then there’s “Baby Missiles”, one of the more upbeat numbers in the War On Drugs catalog, built on the kind of propulsiveness that you wouldn’t expect to show up until 5 minutes into an 8-minute song on the band’s later albums.

It’s fair to say that I ended up enjoying The War on Drugs’ music overall a bit more than Kurt Vile’s, though he’s been so consistently solid that I’ve checked out every album of his since Smoke Ring. I guess it’s just nice that these dudes were able to forge paths in the indie rock world that are both similar, but also scratching a different itch sound-wise. You wouldn’t think there would be room in this world for two long-haired, flanneled Philly dudes playing indie rock at their own deliberate pace, but they managed to pull it off. Also, from what I can tell, Vile and Granduciel have maintained an amicable relationship, like two musical brothers playing a bit too much to the beat of their own drum (or Fender Jaguars) to ever feel competitive.