As far as collaborations in the world of music go, which can range from the predictable to the unexpected to the downright zany, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s debut combined effort Lotta Sea Lice rests somewhere between the former two. Sonically, their previous solo releases are distinct from each other, but borrow from the same worlds; while Vile’s back catalogue is fixated on the languid and lo-fi, blending elements of 90s alt-rock, country and hazy psychedelia, Barnett has delivered us more vivacious and energetic tunes – shrouded in metaphor and witty meditations on the mundane and ordinary, yet with a similar slacker rock sentiment- on her critically lauded 2015 debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Lotta Sea Lice embraces these subtle distinctions however, finding a middle ground which appropriates elements of both artists in equal share. Even details such as the monochrome album cover, which depicts Vile in white and Barnett clad in black, seem like a deliberate effort to highlight the fact that these two musicians are at once both starkly different and mutually complimentary. Nevertheless, there’s a strong sense of shared spirit and laid-back life philosophy running throughout the record which makes it a coherent and enjoyable listen.
A lot of the songs on Sea Lice focus very much on shared and personal experiences, with meandering back-and-forth musings on songwriting processes, touring and long-distance friendships (on the singles ‘Over Everything’ and ‘Continental Breakfast’, respectively). These reference points, and the duo’s conversational singing style on songs such as ‘Let it Go’, which they spend exchanging questions and answers (‘What time do you usually wake up?’ ‘Depends on what time I sleep’), give the record an organic and intimate atmosphere that seems far from contrived or pretentious. It is testament to a real-life friendship which the listener feels some part of. This is also aided by the fact that Vile and Barnett interpret each other’s songs on the album. First is Barnett’s ‘Outta the Woodwork’, which is given a sprawling, drawling treatment by Vile, complete with the interplay of hypnotic and heavy guitars and subtle backing vocals provided by Barnett herself, who also gives a new level of clarity and introspection to Vile’s ‘Peeping Tomboy’ (renamed here as ‘Peepin’ Tom’) with a stripped-back acoustic cover.
In parts, the album falls close to drifting and zoning out a little too much, being at risk to over-indulgence in its spaced-out, hazier side. The track ‘On Script’, for instance, plods along at perhaps too slow a pace, lacking the energy and charisma of other songs and barely propelled forward by Barnett’s deadpan vocals.But this is outweighed by the overall charm and candor of the album, something which sets it apart from many records of the same ilk. Although by far not the most sonically challenging or experimental record I have heard in 2017, it is a welcome collaboration from two enthusiastic and charismatic artists, and above all it is a paean to slowing down and enjoying the important things in life, which is highly significant in a year fraught with turbulence and upheaval.
If you like the sound of that listen to our playlist of the year’s best albums!