When I first heard of Kurt Vile, I thought he must have taken his stage name in honor of Kurt Weill, the composer best known for The Threepenny Opera. (Weill’s name is pronounced “vile.”) I began listening to Vile’s music, seeking out traces of Weill’s German-Jewish heritage, his socialist politics, or some other clue as to why Vile chose the name. All I could come up with was that the two share an air of cynicism and a knack for sticking nasty barbs into a catchy tune.
Vile is from the suburbs of Philadelphia, where he started out as a banjo player. Later, inspired by John Fahey, Vile began finger-picking guitar. He often uses this technique on electric guitar against a lo-fi, alt-rock accompaniment, creating a sound like a softer, more intricate Pavement or Guided by Voices. There are also elements of classic rock: Neil Young, definitely, perhaps even the folk side of Led Zeppelin. On top of that, Vile sings in a sullen, sneering voice that recalls Nick Cave. Vile’s lyrics tell of loneliness, betrayal, and disillusionment. He often returns to a particular image or turn of phrase (red apples, a snake slithering on a spiral staircase) as if he’s trying to work something out of his system. Religion figures prominently in many of his song titles — it shows up in the titles more often than the lyrics.
Kurt Vile is his real name — that’s what several reporters have written, anyway. This news came as a relief to me. The more I listen to Kurt Vile, the more he strikes me as an artist who shouldn’t stand in anyone’s shadow.
Thurston Moore also performs.
KURT VILE & THE VIOLATORS: The Casbah, Saturday, July 30, 8:30 p.m. 619-232-4355. Sold out.