Album Review: Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice

One of the best collaborative rock albums in recent years

Looking back at collaborative albums by rock artists over the past decade, especially considering all-star team-ups in rap like Watch the Throne and Run the Jewels, the concept screams as inessential. Whether the collaboration yields an enjoyable result, like Wavves and Cloud Nothings or Ty Segall and White Fence, or looks better on paper than its execution, like David Byrne and St. Vincent or Jesu and Sun Kil Moon, they tend to amount to little more than footnotes in each artist’s career. Typically already a low-stakes affair, pairing that notion with two artists as laid-back and modest as Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett yields expectations of a fun throwaway with a song or two that might make a greatest hits collection a decade from now. When it was announced as five original songs, two reinterpretations of older songs, and two covers, it seemed like it would be a nice idea overstuffed with padding to sell an album instead of an EP.

Instead, Lotta Sea Lice, Barnett and Vile’s first collaborative album together, makes for a remarkably sublime pairing that brings out the best in each artist, an unexpected gem that sits near the top of either’s discography. The way Barnett and Vile lock into grooves, trading barbs and asides in deadpan tones, and dueling with seemingly effortless yet entrancing guitar riffs makes for a delightful endeavor that plays to both artists’ strengths.

Written and recorded in a couple week-long spurts over a two-year span in Melbourne, the album’s origin is one of mutual fans finding common ground. Barnett first discovered Vile like many, through 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, which became a touchstone of her burgeoning relationship with Jen Cloher, another musician from Melbourne that she’s now married to. Barnett then opened for Vile in 2013 and handed him a copy of A Sea of Split Peas, which he instantly took to. The two formed a friendship, emailing back and forth for months, and after Vile sent her a half-finished version of “Over Everything” because he thought she would fit well with it, the two hit it off, trading ideas until one song turned into nine and Lotta Sea Lice was born.

While Lotta Sea Lice veers closer to the jangly Americana of Vile’s later records compared to the punchy energy of Sometimes I Sit and Think, the ease at which the two find themselves in sync with each other embodies a true collaborative spirit. The call and response of “Let It Go” takes its lyrics from actual emails written back and forth and recalls the musings of two longtime friends just shooting the breeze. On “Over Everything”, they trade fond memories and anxieties, answering each other’s statements with amusing quips. They lightly rib each other until their sprawling solos overwhelm the track, turning it into a winding jam that could easily extend for several minutes longer than it does.

In addition to their sharp wit, Vile and Barnett’s guitar playing serves as a perfect complement to each other. On “Continental Breakfast”, Vile’s flowing fingerpicking drives the backbone of the song while Barnett fills in the empty spaces with flourishes, bending every few notes to stretch it out. Their comfort with each other’s playing styles works wonders, like on “Let It Go”, where two rambling lines offset each other to where they almost sounds like different songs, until they coalesce as Barnett’s broad, noisy swaths and Vile’s pointed soloing form a unifying groove.

Even when one takes the lead, the other follows in accompaniment with just the right backup. On the gentle, breezy, “Blue Cheese”, a song Vile has had in the can for a couple years, Barnett’s cheerful harmonies give Vile’s self-deprecating storytelling just the right bounce. When Barnett leads on “Fear Is Like a Forest”, a cover of a 2009 song by her wife, Vile’s low harmonies on the chorus give the song a full-bodied approach that helps ground the squalor of guitars that elevates an already great track.

As they play each other’s tracks, the elements in their style that drew the two together are immediately apparent. Barnett’s winding version of “Peeping Tomboy” emphasizes the humorous yet affecting lyrics and entrancing fingerpicked line. Vile’s take on “Outta the Woodwork” accentuates Barnett’s ability to stretch out her riffs, dragging the song through a slowed-down tempo that lean into its bluesy undertones. When the two come together on a beautifully stripped-down cover of Belly’s 1993 track “Untogether”, they turn the blissful dream pop of the original into a gorgeously drawn-out ballad with a winding slide guitar, finding a charming harmony in the song’s bittersweet lyrics.

Lotta Sea Lice is a surprising marvel that amounts to much more than a stopgap for either artist. Even more, it hints at exciting new directions for the future, especially with “On Script”, where Barnett impeccably captures the exhaustion of having to spend every night like “a well-rehearsed stage show.” Languid and heavy, the song recalls past standouts like “Kim’s Caravan” and finds Barnett mastering a slow build into a tremendous breakdown. The album sees Barnett and Vile pushing each other to new heights, challenging one another. They sound locked in yet relaxed, and in between tracks, they’ll play studio laughter or the sound of a phone going off as if the songs are the result of jam sessions recorded in a couple of takes. Barnett and Vile’s chemistry together is undeniable, and not only does Lotta Sea Lice sound as fun to listen to as it must have been to make, but it stands as one of the best collaborative rock albums in recent years.

Essential Tracks: “Over Everything”, “Continental Breakfast”, and “On Script”


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