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

By Rory McArthur (@RoryMeep)rating 8

Despite being separated by over 10,000 miles most of the time, Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett and US multi-instrumentalist Kurt Vile have more than a little in common. Both adored by the Pitchfork crowd and sharing a love for a deadpan, 90s influenced approach to music, the two have always wound up on the same Spotify playlists; probably one ironically titled ‘Slacker-Indie’, or something like that. And while that label probably does a bit of an injustice to the songwriting and lyrical skill both parties possess, their music certainly doesn’t sound out of place played back to back. And now, like some kind of hipster avengers, the two have teamed up and traversed an ocean and most of the globe to bring us a new collaborative LP, Lotta Sea Lice.

A loose feeling and breezy project, the album sees the pair cover each other, cover others, and just generally have a lot of fun. Never totally emulating the sounds they’ve dealt in before, these 9 tracks are the sound of two immensely talented musicians just throwing ideas at a canvas and seeing what sticks. And luckily for us, what did stick is rather fantastic.

Originally written a few years back, Over Everything opens the record with an ode to songwriting itself. ‘I wanna dig into my guitar, and bend a blues riff that hangs over everything’ drawls Vile, with Barnett soon responding with her own densely packed lines. While not quite hitting the golden bone dry witticisms these lyricists are capable of, there’s still a lot to enjoy in the conversation-esque structure of the track. Barnett and Vile exchange observations on their own creative processes like they’re chatting backstage at a gig, their voices almost tripping over each other at times, as if they’re excited to find someone who understands the trials and tribulations of being in the business. It’s not a vintage track by the standards of either artist, or by the standards later set later on the record, but as a route into the album, it sets the tone beautifully.

The loose and casual vibe of the opener is carried through the entirety of the remaining 40 minutes or so, with lyrics largely sticking to the somewhat meta-themes of song-craft, touring, and musicianship. It’s certainly an interesting route to take, what with Barnett in particular usually specialising in themes more relatable to the average listener, but its a slight risk that pays off for the most part. Rather than feeling alienating or smug, the lyrical content serves as an endearingly honest peek inside the creative minds of the pair. Whether singing about tinnitus (Over Everything), writer’s block (Let It Go), or touring (Continental Breakfast), the sheer skill these two have when it comes to words makes every last detail sound poetic. Instrumental wise, there’s not too much to shout about, but it provides a more than pleasant enough backdrop for the lyrics and vocal melodies to unfold over.

And anyway, there’s some slide guitar on closing cover Untogether (originally by Belly), and it’s bloody lovely.

Clocking in at 45 minutes across 9 tracks, each song is fairly chunky, shall we say. No song dips below the 4-minute mark, with a couple running over 6. And while this is sometimes welcome as it allows as much to be packed in as possible, it does reveal the records biggest flaw. With fairly little sonic variation, there are periods of the album that drag a little. The previously discussed opener certainly outstays its welcome by a good two minutes, and if giving the whole thing a close listen, you may find yourself longing for some of the shorter, lighter packed tracks Barnett tends to break up her own records with. It’s an album to revise to, an album to write to, an album to chill to, but it’s not necessarily always the greatest album to sit down and concentrate on and pick apart. The phrase ‘too much of a good thing’ perhaps rings true every now and again.

While Lotta Sea Lice is flawed and unlikely to be viewed as the pinnacle of either artist’s career, it will certainly go down as an experiment well worth the undertaking. It may not really pushing any new boundaries but it can’t really be sincerely criticised for playing it relatively ‘safe’. This just feels like two friends just writing whatever came into their heads, simply wanting to have fun. And what fun it is! For fans of Kurt and Courtney, it’ll be a genuine thrill to not only hear the two writing songs together but also to see such genuine appreciation and respect for each others work. The rambling, ‘yeah-sure-why-the-fuck-not’ attitude on display here is genuinely heart-warming, with the covers of each other’s tracks, and of Barnett’s partner Jen Cloher, providing an even deeper personal resonance than was already present. Kick back, relax, and get ready to add a few more tracks to your ‘chill’ playlist.

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