‘Smoke Ring for My Halo’ a Success

Kurt Vile -- 'Smoke Ring for My Halo' -- Matador Records -- 4.5 STARS

Though easily confused by name, Kurt Weill (pronounced ‘vile’) and Kurt Vile have little in common. “Smoke Ring for My Halo” is nothing like Weill’s “Threepenny Opera,” featuring classic rock instead of classical influences and intricate psychedelic folk songs rather than overtly political operatic numbers. Yet just like “Threepenny Opera,” “Smoke Ring for My Halo” is also an artistic triumph.

“Smoke Ring for My Halo” fits easily in Vile’s typical realm of quirkiness and tranquility. Yet, unlike on his previous album, Vile adds a classic rock twist to his psychedelic folk style. The album is a mélange of different styles, yet it’s derivative of none, and the instrumental aesthetic is both innovative and accessible.

The tracks are densely produced, filled with overlapping acoustic guitar, keyboard layers, and distorted electric guitars that provide rougher tones. However, Vile also experiments with different keyboard timbres to provide a balance between relaxing softness and edgy energy. The contrast between harsh and gentle tones contributes to Vile’s unique sound. Songs like “Jesus Fever” and “Puppet To the Man” find a balance between distorted power chords and Vile’s soothing psychedelic drawl.

The seamless combination of disparate styles is achieved through Vile’s musical prowess. His exemplary guitar skills allow him to accomplish challenging patterns that add complexity and maturity to his melodies, as demonstrated in the opening song “Baby’s Arms.” On this track, Vile perfectly balances the layers of acoustic guitar, electric guitar, tambourine, and keys to create a lazy atmosphere. Though the album oscillates between laid-back, folkier songs and upbeat rockers, the instrumentation remains a consistent and strong feature through all the tracks and provides an overarching hypnotic atmosphere.

John Agnello’s precise production is essential in bringing out the nuances of Vile’s potentially overbearing musical ambitions. Agnello does an impressive job of mixing a multitude of components together to create a cohesive sound for the album. The intricacies of each song’s composition go easily unnoticed until Agnello subtly features different sounds at specific points in the tracks. In “Ghost Town,” the vocals and electric guitar take turns demanding focus, while the keyboard melody fills in the gaps between transitions. In the background, acoustic guitar chords, shakers and toms keep the beat ambling along at a mid-tempo pace. Vile builds steadily upon a foundation of acoustic guitar with layers of electronic sounds that accumulate until the song climaxes in a cloud of percussion, synthesizers, electric and acoustic guitar, keyboard, and vocals before returning to the simplicity of the same solo acoustic.


Vile’s voice has a crisp but smooth indie quality that contributes to the chilling folksy feel of the album. Moreover, Vile manipulates his tones to suit whichever feeling he seeks to portray, from the psychedelic and serene tone of “On Tour” to the rougher, rocker-rebelliousness of “Puppet To The Man.” His vocal flexibility proves his maturity and skill as a vocalist.

The arresting strangeness of Vile’s voice is mirrored in the pleasing idiosyncrasies of his lyrics. The lyrics address the hardships of romance and identity with refreshingly original imagery. In the song “In My Time,” he sings about reconciling his true personality with an assumed one, “One [face] that erase my discreet disgraces / Pull one over on the shoulder / Ain’t trying / But it’s two worlds, one on each shoulder.” The contrast between the lightheartedness of the instrumentation and the depth of the lyrical themes provides another element of sophistication.

Though Vile’s quirkiness has the potential to alienate, the intricate instrumentation offered on “Smoke Ring for My Halo” makes his music accessible to a diverse range of listeners. The album represents a milestone in his musical development. Though he draws heavily from classic rock, he turns his influences into something totally unique and compelling—a sound all his own.

—Staff writer Vivian W. Leung can be reached at


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