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American underground rock has long enjoyed a tradition of taking the discarded genres and styles of previous generations and re-contextualising them, so the familiar reference points are once again fresh and new: think of Dinosaur Jr and Meat Puppets retooling country and classic-rock references for an audience raised on hardcore-punk. Kurt Vile, lead guitarist for Philadelphian indie-rockers The War on Drugs, continued this tradition with two solo albums – Constant Hitmaker and God is Saying This to You – released in 2008 on bafflingly obscure record labels.
Despite their low profiles, these records won a modest blog-buzz for their hazy, personal take on the classic singer-songwriter paradigm. Recorded alone on rudimentary home-recording equipment, and aided by primitive FX and reverb-drenched vocals, Vile’s tunes channelled such masters of rock songcraft as Neil Young and Bob Dylan, though Vile’s idiosyncratic production approach – with a heavy lo-fi aesthetic, revelling in distortion and analogue crackle – made the sound his own.
Childish Prodigy, his third full-length, is his first for Matador Records and therefore his first widely-available release. Vile marks this step into the relative big league by inviting his touring band, The Violators, into the studio with him for a couple of tracks, breaking up the hushed and intimate vibe of the previous albums with a ragged Crazy Horse stomp (opener Hunchback) and frayed charm (the lackadaisical Monkey). In such moments, Childish Prodigy feels like some obscure 70s rock LP discovered by chance in a charity shop, an ambiance Vile no doubt aimed for. Freak Train, which closes the album’s first side, captures this vibe perfectly, its chugging seven-minute guitar ’n’ sax rock-out sounding like an indie-rock Born to Run.
Vile’s solo recordings, meanwhile, continue to impress. Dead Alive – which sounds like Thurston Moore singing The Rolling Stones’ Play with Fire – is mesmerising, with a brooding menace; similarly, the aching and pretty Heart Attack is given an electrified edge by Vile’s bluesy holler, sounding like Dylan in caustic, chiding Like a Rolling Stone mode.
His roots might be easy to trace, but Childish Prodigy is more than the product of a tasteful record collection. --Stevie Chick
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