Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice

by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2017-10-13
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice

One thing that becomes readily apparent quickly on Courtney Barnett’s and Kurt Vile’s collaborative LP Lotta Sea Lice is that this is one hell of a guitar album.  Maybe that shouldn’t seem surprising given Vile’s propensity to script some particularly lengthy, but melodic songs, and Barnett’s punchier, more lyrically driven approach, but I was caught off guard.  When this album first got announced, it would have been a fair assumption to think this would end up a wry, laid back affair between kindred spirits with witticisms in abundance.  That is true in places, but the heaviness of the sound in other places with extended guitar interplay and solos comes as a pleasant bonus.  Vile’s last several albums have been excellent, but this reverts to a more guitar dominated approach compared to his more diverse sounds of late.  Never ones to be showy or overly energetic, the pair just seem to be letting the guitars bring some heft to the proceedings.  

As affable as these two come across, the idea of them working together is a brilliant one.  With Barnett having opened for Vile at some shows down under several years back and then other encounters along the way you can see them hitting it off musically and attitudinally.  Ultra laid back and hip by not being hip, they are either above it all or beneath it all or maybe both.  When Barnett drolly says in ‘Continental Breakfast’ that they are ‘holed up in East Bumble-wherever’ you can see them meeting in the morning at a limited service hotel lobby for dried out croissants on styrofoam plates.  Not exactly the glamorous rock and roll life.  

They are joined on the album by members of the Dirty Three as their band, with Jim White particularly standing out with his expert stick work in several places, notably on ‘Let It Go’.  The composition of the album also garners kudos.  They sing several songs with traded lines.  As if one of them wrote a phrase, mailed it halfway around the world and so on and so forth until they were done.  Other songs are either mainly Barnett or mainly Vile, but the other is always along for the chorus at a minimum.  They also bring some variety by each covering one of the other's lesser known tracks and closing the affair with a fairly obscure cover of Belly’s ‘Untogether’ as either a break-up song or a farewell of sorts.

‘Over Everything’, which was released as the first single, starts off very Vile-esque with some slick guitar interplay added to the lengthy track with each of them trading verses on their songwriting technique and whiling away the days.  ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Continental Breakfast’ stick out as the two tracks where it seems they took turns writing lines over a course of months until the songs came together.  In the former, Barnett asks Vile what time he usually wakes up, with Vile responding it depends on what time he goes to sleep.  An innocent question met with a tossed off answer that comes across as two people destined to be friends getting to know each other.  While on ‘Continental Breakfast’, Barnett’s turn of phrase of cherishing her intercontinental friendships while talking over continental breakfast shows her wit remains in tact, while the song sets an acoustic wistful mood.  

In covering each other’s songs, Barnett comes off particularly well showing Vile at his most lackadaisical on ‘Peeping Tomboy’ - not wanting to work, but not wanting to sit around while also half-heartedly stalking a girl.  Vile stretches Barnett’s ‘Out of the Woodwork’ into a six minute bluesy workout with Barnett joining on the chorus.  A cover of Barnett’s partner’s (Jen Cloher who is joining them on tour) ‘Fear Is Like a Forest’ is turned into the heaviest guitar track here with Vile turning in a Crazy Horse worthy fuzzed out guitar scorcher.  Another highlight is the country shuffle ‘Blue Cheese’ with them singing together on the line, “kiss me with your mouth girl of my dreams” being a particularly clever line in a song full of them. 

Sadly, all good things must come to a close and Tanya Donelly’s ‘Untogether’, although ostensibly a break-up song, here comes across more as a regrettable parting of friends:  “you can dry your eyes, but you can’t hold the impossibly untogether”.  With Vile in Philly and Barnett in Australia you get the sinking feeling that this may be a one off, but a brilliant one off it is.  Maybe not destined to be the long-standing institutions of say Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton or Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, but we will all look back on this fortuitous pairing as a gloriously ingenious one in the course of their work.  (The pair do have a brief tour kicking off in the US soon and I'm lucky to have tickets to the final show in Austin - hopefully they will take this overseas as well).       

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