As album titles go, Wakin on a Pretty Daze does a bang-up job of describing the music within. The fifth LP from Philadelphia guitarist and songwriter Kurt Vile delights in delicate fingerpicking and distortion that glides but never grinds. The singer's steady style, patiently refined during six years of solo work, perfectly conjures that fuzzy sense of alertness that comes when you greet the dawn after only a few hours of sleep, a fleeting bliss that will soon dissolve into a caffeinated stupor. He's a gifted guitarist and a lyricist capable of sharp and incisive couplets, but Vile's greatest strength is conjuring and sustaining this elusive mood.
His last two albums, this year's Wakin and 2011's Smoke Ring for My Halo, produce this feeling with auteur-ish rigor. Not surprising, as Vile has likely been waking early on little sleep for a while now. In the middle of recording Smoke Ring, his wife gave birth to their first child, a daughter. It was a joyous inconvenience that knocked the album from its intended release in the fall of 2010 to the following spring. His wife became pregnant again leading into Wakin. Learning from the last go-round, he hurried through most of his recordings before the birth of his second daughter, leaving the weeks after her birth for relaxed refinement.
Since his 2009 signing to indie mainstay Matador Records, Vile has supported himself without the help of another job. He tours relentlessly — including an upcoming stop at the Chop Shop on Oct. 28 — and writes constantly, releasing five records since 2008. With young kids and an occupation that keeps him up into the wee hours, one imagines that he knows the feeling he creates quite well. So far, it suits him just fine.
"It feels good," Vile told this writer a few months ago. "I was touring and booking my own tours toward the end of my last job. I think with every record, it's working out because it's a little more success. It's like if I didn't put out another record in another couple years, if I waited too long, it could kind of dribble out. You've got to stay on top of it. But it doesn't feel weird. It just feels good. I've been obsessed with playing music since I was a kid, so I'm just glad it's working out."
Vile has matched his mounting success with continuous improvement. Wakin is his most consistent and enjoyable offering, pairing his eternally drifting ambience — like Crazy Horse without the crazy — with a consistently driving pulse, managing hypnosis without starting to snooze. Take "KV Crimes," which drenches a stomping, blues-informed riff with echoing distortion that never blunts its impact. It's at once pounding and immersive, a combo that Vile once struggled to deliver.
The album also boasts some of his best writing. "Wakin on a Pretty Day" finds real-world frustrations wrecking Vile's early morning bliss. The day is dawning, and his phone rings off the shelf — "I guess he wanted to kill himself," he quips — prompting a stream-of-consciousness confession: "To be frank, I'm fried," he admits, "but I don't mind." Life's hard, but Vile isn't one to dwell on the negative, one of many reasons his music remains enjoyable.
"It's just a small step at a time," he says of his progress. "I'm really proud of every record. When I say I get better, I just mean technically. You refine your craft. But I couldn't touch some things I did on my early lo-fi records because it was a moment in time when it was a certain mindset. It was just as honest, and maybe there was more urgency back then because I was still struggling. But there's always struggle. It's just in different ways."
True to his word, Vile's work doesn't push in just one direction. Jamaica Plain, a collaborative EP he created a few years back with Massachusetts' even-more-subtle Sore Eros, opts for a mostly wordless expanse. Guitars wander with tectonic confidence as humming distortion charts movement on a galactic scale. It could be tedious, but Vile's melodic through lines keep things moving. Due for release next month, it's an experimental dessert following Wakin's meat and potatoes, a satisfying end to a successful year.
Vile's on the road a good bit this fall, cutting across North America and Europe before taking a break in December. He'll miss his family while he's out there, but he knows he'll see them soon. "This is what I'm good at, and this is my job," Vile offers. "This is a really heavy-traffic time. I come home, and it's always good to come home. But this is a time to take advantage of the situation. It goes by pretty quick, quicker than you think. Before you know it, it'll be mellowed out, and I'll be able to disappear for months."