Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
Lotta Sea Lice
words by maria sledmere
photograph by danny cohen
Sometimes a record comes along and it really does feel like a generous slice of bliss. Collaborative albums aren’t always easy to pull off: there’s the need to avoid gimmick and translate the initial fantasy football novelty into a thing of genuine quality. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s effort, Lotta Sea Lice, is like spending a weekend away with two people you always admired for their coolness, and then discovering that actually they’re a whole lot of fun too. It’s the sound of two people discovering the delights and surprises of each other’s brains, resulting in overlapping planes of talent which weave seamlessly into a folkrock collection both fresh and deliciously vintage.
What’s irresistible about this project is the mythology around it. There’s Barnett’s professed obsession with Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, an album she fell in love with and to. In fact, she even covered ‘Peepin’ Tomboy’ as ‘Peepin’ Tom’ for Lotta Sea Lice, teasing out the track’s roving, quixotic tenderness with her sparkly Aussie drawl. There’s the rock’n’roll legacy of the Courtney/Kurt namesake, alluded to in the video for ‘Continental Breakfast’. Then there’s the way the pair twist the traditional male/female collaborative folk lineage (Joan Baez/Bob Dylan and Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood, to name a few) into something that feels distinct to their mutual spirit, a sort of suburban deadpan ennui that’s quirky, self-aware and always reaching for beauty in simplicity, the way a kid finds a jewel in an acorn.
Dropping at the start of autumn, this is a transitional sort of album. As the song ‘Continental Breakfast’ narrates, it crosses continents, reaching between Barnett’s native Melbourne and Vile’s Philadelphia like an artful patchwork made of electric letters, chords rung out over lonesome oceans. The pair exchanged emails before working together on demos and ended up pulling lines from the messages for lyrics, sharing facts about each other’s lives and routines. As a finished product, Lotta Sea Lice uses its conversational mood to illuminate the everyday in the form of a question and answer or call and response session, effortlessly strung over clustering electric guitar and thoughtful arrangements. The lyrics feel breezy and light, typical to each artist but with the familiar angst turned down just a notch in favour of eccentricity and creative discovery.
Many of the lyrics, especially on ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Over Everything’, relate to songwriting itself. Rather than being self-indulgent, there’s a sense of inviting listeners into a secret party of exchange. This is what it’s like to sit around sharing pizza, twanging a riff or flinging a chance line into lyric abyss. It feels easeful, genuine; cherishing both play and process, finding your mutual muses. In combination with new tracks, the reworking of older material from each artist—including ‘Out of the Woodwork’, from Barnett’s 2013 double EP—lends a feel of craft to the album. It’s an exercise in synthesising minds as much as music, pulling together a glazed atmosphere of warm and hazy guitars, lyrics that veer between loquacious and laconic, sprinkled with both sharp wit and admitted sentiment.
The daylight slacker-rock and bluesy delicacy of tone is accompanied by vivid splashes of imagery: girls who insist on touching your face (‘Untogether’), pensively watching the waves from rented shorefront properties (‘Continental Breakfast’), feeling your ‘hair-flag waving’ in a smoggy and windswept ‘beautiful morning’ (‘Over Everything’). There’s an endearing lyrical quality that surrounds the record with its halo of relationships, improvised amusement and bittersweet memory. Neither Barnett nor Vile shy away from a solo, so while the overall flavour is typically loose and free, you couldn’t accuse the pair of cold nonchalance. With an impressive hoard of backing musicians pulled from the Dirty Three, Warpaint and friends of Barnett’s Milk! Records label, Lotta Sea Lice is beautifully arranged with the sort of easeful dexterity—all fuzzy grooves and picked guitars—that comes from a genuine commitment to the songs themselves.
As the leaves make their slow, autumnal descent, gathering red-gold among new silver mists, in Australia it’s the first unfurling of spring, all that blossom blooming pink then falling over Melbourne. There’s something about these opposing seasons that channels through the album, connecting each continent by collectively looking backwards and forwards to a languid, always-already summer nostalgia, accompanied by that (continental) croissant chew of respective contemplation. Friendship, regret, hurt, love and solitude are familiar themes which translate to a restrained but no less luminous sense of wonder.
Listening to Lotta Sea Lice is like falling for somebody else’s July: experiencing that gleeful sweep of a chorus, the morning auroras of soft folk chords, the mingling of voices in the afternoon, sprawled out on sunshine, wry humour and sleepy dreams. You experience this melding of minds from the outside listening in, but maybe there’s also a strange invitation to bask in that warm world yourself; the record feels welcoming somehow, owing probably to its generosity of spirit, its sense of mutual artistic homage. Sure, it’s not reinventing the wheel of folkrock, or casting extravagant experiments in sound, but there’s a kernel of something special here that’s worth clinging to. Call it charm, wistful Americana (I’m reminded of Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jone’s surprising duet covers of Everly Brothers classics, released with love-letter flourish as Foreverly) or the pure fortuity of musical compatibility, but Lotta Sea Lice is maybe the understated, zany wee record that’ll pull you lovingly through the long long winter—or summer, depending on what side of the world you lie.
‘Lotta Sea Lice’ is released on Friday (October 13th), via Matador Records
Pre-order it here