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Kurt Vile channels Nashville & late hero John Prine in glowing new release: Speed, Sound, Lonely KV

Brendan Casey

Philadelphia indie rock singer-songwriter, Kurt Vile, has come a long way in the music world since being a forklift operator in a warehouse - but his work ethic and human element hasn’t left him or his music since achieving some success in the latter half of the past decade. From the moment you press play on the first track of his glistening, brand spankin’ new EP, Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep), to the moment the final track ends, you’ll feel his laid-back yet witty personality reflected in the music while your ears and mind are wrapped up in the arms of a mellow and comforting sonic hug.

Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep) contains five aurally warm songs - three covers, two originals - all of which harbor one distinct sound. The project was recorded sporadically over a span of 4 years in Nashville, a hotbed for folk, country, and Americana for over 100 years, even before the Grand Ole Opry’s 1925 opening. Along with being recorded in The Music City, the EP features numerous iconic Nashville musicians backing Vile. Influences from these American roots have been infused in Vile’s music since his early days, but they’re shown more than ever in this latest release. One of Vile’s biggest influences is the late, great songwriter, John Prine, a true Nashville legend, and in a way, this EP stands as an ode to Vile’s late hero, who passed away earlier this year from complications of COVID-19 (may he rest in peace). Two of the three songs covered on the album are Prine tunes, as the title track “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” kicks it off in grand fashion.

In-Depth Look

KV takes “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”, a Prine tune released on his 1986 studio album German Afternoons, and makes it his own. The track starts with hypnotic finger-picking by Vile on an acoustic, light drum playing, and a soft but heavy country bassline. The track is also supplemented by piano riffs played by another Nashville guy, Bobby Wood, who has appeared on countless records for names such as Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Kris Kristofferson. KV enters the first verse with his signature, unhurried drawl and delivers the gripes of a man caught living in a failing relationship.

Regarding the lyrics, Prine himself once said, “I wrote that song to explain something to myself. I was going through a relationship that was breaking up. I had a picture from the cover of ‘Life’ magazine of the guys who broke the speed of sound on the ground and they had the G-forces pulling the guy’s face back and I felt that was my heart. So I was trying to explain how you do that, how you get to the point of stretching your heart out like that in a relationship.”

Of course, the tune carries classic John Prine truth-telling with a dash of humor that Vile loves, with lyrics such as “You come home late and you come home early / You come on big when you’re feeling small / You come home straight and you come home curly / Sometimes you don’t come home at all.”

Listen closely and you’ll hear Vile’s vocals complimented by the mandolin playing of Pat McLaughlin, a multi-instrumental musician (hailing from Nashville as well) who has played on albums for artists such as Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, and of course, John Prine.

The title track ends with gentle, dreamy crooning by Vile as he sings along to the melody. He then takes a delicate acoustic guitar solo through the outro that blends in nicely as the rest of the band plays on to the finish.

The following track is another cover picked by KV, this one titled “Gone Girl”: most commonly known to be done by Johnny Cash in 1978, but was actually written by the one and only “Cowboy” Jack Clement. Clement, a Tennessee native, was the engineer and producer at the historic Sun Studios in Memphis, and worked with “up-and-coming” artists such as Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins - and can also be credited for discovering Jerry Lee Lewis. “Cowboy” Jack also wrote numerous tunes, covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and Dolly Parton. With this context, it’s clear why Vile chose to cover a song written by a man deeply rooted in American music history.

Vile and crew kick off “Gone Girl” with its infectious rhythm, shuffling along with subtle hints of fingerpicking and a bass that holds down the groove. Vile’s vocals along with the rest of the track bask in a soft reverb that fills empty space, giving it a dense feeling while maintaining a minimal core. The empty space can also be heard being filled in the background by an organ, adding velvety sustained chords.

“Gone Girl” also contains the witty humor in its lyrics that Vile loves and emulates in his own music. He sings the opening lines of “Gone Girl” with ironic satisfaction and innocence: “She is deliciously tall, sort of a long girl / She is delightfully small, sort of a song girl” as he’s describing the girl that left him. Throughout the song, Vile sings as if trying to make sense of it all with his slow, gentle, near-speaking voice.

Vile said in a recent interview with The Line of Best Fit that “‘Gone Girl’ was a deep cut that I didn't give away for a while because it was so personal to me, and now finally that I got my cover out there I can unleash it to the world. It is just incredible.

The tune ends with Vile and company singing along to the melody with a chorus of “la’s”, as if life goes on without the “Gone Girl”, and there’s not much we can do about it. We just have to let her go.

Clocking in at over 6 minutes, the first of two originals by Vile on Speed, Sound, Lonely KV is “Dandelions”. The ethereal, dream-like ambience and simple but strong lyricism of this song is signature Kurt Vile. To put it simply, the song glows.

Starting with beautiful acoustic fingerpicking by KV (a common theme throughout this entire EP), it is soon backed up by drums, ambient synth-like keys, complimented by shimmering, trilling mandolin. If you listen closely, you can even hear hints of banjo, adding to this modern Nashville-esque sound that Vile has made his own. At the end of some lines, you’ll hear the sounds of glimmering windchimes, sending your mind straight to a green grass field in the country, filled with dandelions floating through the air.

“Dandelions” is about the little things in life that make it so beautiful. Vile sings “Dandelions, for my three girls”, most likely for his wife and two young daughters, making this a sincerely personal tune. He tells us “You can blow on ‘em/ Or you can just hold ‘em”, using his knack for making something so simple feel so special. Vile reminds us how human he is as he sings “I like the feeling of being sentimental, and also a little mental”, and “I don’t mind crying, but I prefer them to be tears of joy, over rage”. He also sings about dealing with growing up and getting older as he turned 40 this past winter: “And anything over age, I’m over that...when I look back at my...”. It’s as if Vile opened up his heart and mind and poured it into a concoction of reflection and warm, comforting radiance.

“Dandelions” comes to an end as the warm, ambient glow slows, the fingerpicking stops, as the recording enters the studio with Vile as he says with casual glee: “sounded pretty sick!” Followed by giggling from other musicians in the studio - one of which is fellow indie-rocker Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who has grown to be a prominent figure in the Nashville music scene in the last decade.

The fourth track and final cover on Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep) is “How Lucky”, a John Prine song, featuring the late John Prine himself, just four months before his passing. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Vile recalled sitting down with Prine in the studio, learning how to play “How Lucky”. He confesses that it was “probably the single most special musical moment in my life.” With this said, if you don’t get emotional listening to this track, you might not be human.

The acoustic duet kicks off with Prine’s weathered voice counting the band in, followed by his distinct fingerpicking, accompanied by KV. A gentle tambourine keeps time along with beautiful mandolin fills and the bass playing by another one of Nashville’s finest, Dave Roe (Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, etc.)

Vile and Prine then deliver us the moving story of a man walking down streets he “used to wander”, looking back at how far he came, as he says, “I scratched my head” as if in disbelief, “and I lit my cigarette”. There were “all these things” that he says he “don’t remember” since so much has changed in his life, and feels grateful, singing “How lucky can one man get?”. Vile alternates verses with Prine before singing together in unison for the final verse, a special moment on the EP as Vile sings with his late hero, a moment that will bring a tear to your eye.

“Pearls” caps off Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep) as the final track, and the 2nd new Kurt Vile original. Following the theme of the EP, the track kicks off with the sweet fingerpicking on acoustic by Vile, accompanied by hints of mandolin and dreamy vocals swimming in reverb.

Vile sings to a girl with his distinct phrasing, “Where you been now, little girl?/ Where you been now, little girl? / Did you get your purse all filled with pearls?” One can assume the girl Vile is singing to is an adult, going off and doing her own thing, as he asks, “Why’d you come back looking stoned?” In classic KV fashion, the lyrics in “Pearls” make you think. Like Dylan, they may be specific, but they can always leave you with questions.

After each verse, Vile gets after it on his acoustic, laying down angular, drone-like solos that he’s known for. They build tension as the band behind him picks up before finally cooling down. Once you think the song is over after a pause - the band jumps back in as Vile picks on until the tune fades out in a rather mysterious yet settling way.

While encapsulating a warm Nashville vibe and paying homage to a late hero all while staying true to his own sound, Kurt Vile’s Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep) delivers. Actor Bill Murray was once going through a rough time in his life where he wasn’t depressed, but he wasn’t happy. When Hunter S. Thompson recommended that he should rely on John Prine’s music “for a little sense of humor”, he did - “And that was the beginning of the return…” Murray said. It helped him dig himself out of that hole - and Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep) holds this same special power. On a day, or week, or month where you’re feeling down and out, KV’s music is there to remind you it ain’t all that bad, pick you up, and give you a pat on the back. Whether you’re happy or sad, whether it's sunny or cloudy, or whether it's summer or winter, put on Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep), and it’ll give you a hug either way.

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