From East Coast to West

Kurt Vile and Cass McCombs stare down America

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC I guess there's some redemption for America in that it can still produce someone like Kurt Vile, a pure rock musician, to the manner (rather than to the manor) born.

Last spring I caught Philadelphia's Vile in the Hemlock Tavern's crowded back room, and instead of blowing everyone away with a crowd-pleasing performance, he did something different, going deep into his songs to a degree that the audience was an afterthought. This wasn't Catpower-style meandering as lame performance art, it was a musician working with his guitar. Jay Reatard had died a few months earlier, and for me, there was a sense of relief that his introverted counterpart Vile seemed so engaged with what he was doing, with his calling.

Vile's new album Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador) is the best studio effort by him and his band, the Violators, and roughly the equal of his superb 2008 collection of stripped-down solo recordings, Constant Hitmaker. The instrumental chops are top notch, a rarity in indie land. Vile wears a Midwestern twang like a fine middle-finger salute when he isn't doing his best son-of-Iggy on "Puppet to the Man."

Throughout Smoke Ring For My Halo, the couplets flow freely: "Society is my friend/ He makes me lie down in a cold bloodbath"; "If it ain't workin' take a whiz on the world/ An entire nation drinkin' from a dirty cup/ My best friend's long gone, but I got runner-ups" "I don't want to give up but I kind of want to lie down/ But not sleep, just rest." Vile shrinks himself to Tom Thumb proportions to fit into his baby's hand, and plays the role of peeping tom captivated by a tomboy. He goes back and forth between deadpan morbid or devastating observations and just-joshing asides, all the while maintaining the disconcerting familiarity of a bar-stool neighbor.

Vile and his band peak with "On Tour," which turns the lonely romanticism of an on-the-road ballad into a Lord of the Flies scenario within its first two lines. The song blankly presents the visions of a traveling musician — and restlessly contemplates the idea of the traveling musician — then torches all of it. "Oh yeah," Vile drawls, at the quiet onset of a thunderous instrumental passage that's totally shiver-inducing. Oh yeah is right.

Cass McCombs' has spent time in the Midwest, but it was a passage in a Californian son's vagabond travels. McCombs is more of a stately chap, his voice a little higher and prettier, his arrangements — while also country-tinged — a little more chamber-like and precise, his Poe-tinged fatal lyricism more literary and bookish. The lyrics for Wit's End (Domino), his follow-up to 2009's impressive Catacombs, are printed in English and German.

Like Vile's, McCombs' portraits of American life are defined in relation to death. There's more quiet and open space in his compositions, yet when he sings "I can smell the columbine" on the opening "County Line," he's finding wildflowers trampled beneath a landscape — and world of meaning — familiar with high-school massacres. This is someone who gave a tune about a guy who loves his job the title "The Executioner's Song."

At eight songs, Wit's End, due out in late April, doesn't overstay its welcome. "County Line" takes the keening, solitary atmosphere of 1970s radio ballads such as Paul Davis' "I Go Crazy" or the Eagles' "I Can't Tell You Why" and replaces their fantasies of love with an empty landscape.

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