The song "Hate City" is the B-side to a 7-inch single released by the Philadelphia scuz-punk miscreants Clockcleaner on the Australian label Stained Circles in 2008. That's around the time a fellow Philadelphia musician, a longhaired skinny songwriter named Kurt Vile, started to become the new buzz of the indie-rock world. His debut, Constant Hitmaker, had offered a shambolic traipse through an unlikely intersection of classic rock, psychedelic rock and far-out folk — basically, like any Traveling Wilbury making a mescaline pilgrimage.
On Constant Hitmaker, Vile was a guitarist with any easy hand, a voice with a distant sweetness and a pen with a sort of paradoxically pedestrian and astral vision. Here's a guy who could — on the album-leading "Freeway," for instance — make the story of bee stings seem compelling. He sounded more than a little like an updated Van Morrison, and a lot like Devendra Banhart with grounding and purpose. About a year after Vile released Constant Hitmaker, Matador Records released Vile's follow-up, Childish Prodigy. Vile — the young star of one of the most canonical labels in the land — was on his way.
So, for about 60 seconds, "Hate City" plows forward without restraint or indulgence, Clockcleaner frontman John Sharkey III barking about metropolitan frustrations with a strangled determination that suggests he'll spend his last two minutes of breath telling us how it should be. Suddenly, though, the guitars, drums and haranguing give up and pull back, allowing the least expected thing imaginable — a saxophone, loud and bright and unapologetic — to streak into the maw. It's like a sudden burst of laughter at a friend's funeral, or a naked fat man at a beauty pageant.
That's actually Vile playing saxophone on "Hate City." It was a few months before he became a favorite of Kim Gordon and J Mascis, the new addition to Matador and the subject of a few thousand fawning blog posts. Maybe it's surprising that Vile is a saxophone player, or that he was one before the instrument came into indie-rock vogue (see Destroyer, Gayngs, Colin Stetson); he also played trumpet — an instrument he referenced lyrically several times during Hitmaker — on Blues Control's fantastic Local Flavor a year later.
Rather, his Clemmons-style blast in the middle of "Hate City" is important because it points to Vile's wildly collaborative approach to not only making his music, but also to making others' music better. Despite Vile's increased popularity, he's clung fast to a childlike collaborative spirit. He sings on David Comes to Life, this year's stunning hardcore opera from labelmates Fucked Up, and he plays guitar on Several Shades of Way, the beautiful solo record released by his tourmate and idol J Mascis earlier this year. Around the time Childish Prodigy was released in 2008, Vile's longtime collaborator Adam Granduciel also issued his debut Wagonwheel Blues as The War on Drugs on a much bigger label (Secretly Canadian). Even now, three years later, both Granduciel and Vile still field questions about who writes the songs in which band and how they separate the somewhat similar-sounding work of the two. That would be a nightmare for anyone whose first priority is building their band into a brand, but Vile plays on the forthcoming Drugs album, Slave Ambient, and Granduciel just spent several weeks in Europe, playing as one of Vile's backing Violators. It's as if they're both still unknown songwriters from the City of Brotherly Love, helping each other just because they have to.
For visual evidence of all this, spend a second on YouTube, and you'll find a video of Vile — staring at his shoes and the cheap microphone in front of his face — covering Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" in the back of a cramped record store, with Thurston Moore picking an errant acoustic guitar lead from the corner. When the song's over, Vile says, "Thanks, Thurston," and offers a kind of dopey, sheepish smile. It suggests he's still very excited and surprised to be in his own adult shoes.
Nice piece, Jim.
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