As the saying goes: the candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. This is quite literally the case with Kurt Vile’s new EP So Outta Reach – a set of five songs recorded during the Smoke Ring For My Halo sessions.
Released earlier this year, Smoke Ring For My Halo’s songs are well-written and atmospheric, but they sound incomplete; rather than an instant classic in the Kurt Vile canon, we are presented with a stepping-stone of potential – the record feels like a collection of demos. One can’t help but wonder if Vile decided to take the same root as Springsteen, and make it his Nebraska, preferring to leave the unpolished songs as they stood.
The LP opens with two of Vile’s best: ‘Baby’s Arms’ and ‘Jesus Fever’. The first is particularly good – a simple yet cinematic love song, understated finger-picked acoustic guitar looping to create hypnotic ambience. However, from here the album begins to slowly freewheel downhill, back down the timeline and into the ‘70s. With his previous albums, Vile took the well-established, familiar sound of this famous musical era, but played around with it, always managing to throw something fresh into the mix. This time around, Vile has left the kernel of his influences unadorned. Not quite as anarchic as Childish Prodigy, not quite as experimental as God Is Saying This To You…, Smoke Ring For My Halo has the air of a tribute album at times, particularly the Rolling Stones-esque ‘Puppet To The Man’ and the dreamy ‘On Tour’ and ‘In My Time’ – two tracks that could quite easily be lost Neil Young B-sides.
So, while it might appear as though new EP So Outta Reach’s purpose is to collect together the songs that weren’t quite good enough to make the LP, the opposite seems to be true; So Outta Reach could well be the finest tracks from the session, which Vile specially chose to feature on a separate disc. The proceedings are kicked off with the best song on either record, ‘The Creature’. The foggy production of Smoke Ring For My Halo drifts out the open window, vocals and acoustic guitars cutting crisp and clean through the mix, establishing a moody, remarkably mature tone. Next is an optimistic, lo-fi pop gem, ‘It’s Alright’. You’re instantly transported from the hazy fields of Woodstock to the sunny beaches of L.A., waves crashing in the distance. The scene has now been set for the EP’s centrepiece, ‘Life’s A Beach’ – a similarly upbeat, satisfyingly catchy track. This is one of the main differences between the two records: So Outta Reach feels more consistent, more unified, more thematically linked.
Vile then weaves in an interesting twist, kicking out the beach bonfire and paying explicit tribute to one of his influences, with Bruce Springsteen’s lesser-known track from Born In The U.S.A., ‘Downbound Train’. It’s as if Vile is acknowledging the main problem with Smoke Ring For My Halo, and is deciding to be more overt in his approach. It’s always a risk to cover someone of Springsteen’s stature, but Vile masterfully pulls it off, obviously connecting with the emotional epic, and breathing new life into it with his youthful voice and rough-and-ready guitar sound.
So Outta Reach sounds like the songs Vile carefully put aside during the Smoke Ring For My Halo sessions, so he could give them a little more attention later on. Whether this is actually the case remains unclear, but the EP is certainly the halo to the LP’s smoke ring: it’s small, it’s bright and it remains hovering above you for a long while after listening.