Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, “Lotta Sea Lice”

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile
Lotta Sea Lice
MATADOR
8/10

There’s a line that comes midway through Lotta Sea Lice about working hard to make something look easy—one of any number of odd and endearing couplets that waft through this dreamy record, and perhaps the one that best summarizes the spirit of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s debut team-up. This is a record that shambles by at a breezy pace, never rising to a roar when a conversational deadpan will suffice; its songs are deliberately gnarled and unkempt, and never sound nearly as fussed-over as they probably are. It’s an album a few years in the making, after all, and its unhurried grace is just a feint. Not just anyone could craft an album that feels at once so full-bodied and tossed-off, so lackadaisical and complete.

They are, of course, a perfect pairing—two singer/songwriters with an affinity for wry humor and tangled guitars, whose laconic approach gets them labelled as slackers when anyone can hear that there’s real talent and ambition at play in their songs. Perhaps Lotta Sea Lice is a little bit more in Vile’s camp—these songs amble rather than gallop, and never quite veer into Barnett’s garage-rock din—but the album feels very much like the product of simpatico sensibilities and aesthetics.

In fact, there are honest-to-god, he-said-she-said duets on this album, starting with the opening song, “Over Everything.” It’s the perfect gateway into this duo and their chemistry, its ramshackle beat building steam without ever breaking a sweat, twin guitars intertwining in frayed edges, the singers trading even-keel lines about finding comfort in music, self-expression, and like-minded collaboration. Calling it a statement of purpose would be too stuffy, though it offers vivid explanation of why an album like this might exist and why it might sound so persuasive.

That faint air of self-love and internal motivation carries over into other songs, too; the second track, called “Let It Go,” bears advice in its very title, and pulls off the neat trick of sounding melancholy and hopeful at the same time. Those sweet-and-sour emotions are what make the lyrics stick—they’re funny and sad, too weathered to be corny—and they also provide context for some of the jokier numbers (“Continental Breakfast,” “Blue Cheese”).

Of the nine songs here, six were written specifically for the album, yet there are also three crossovers—Kurt doing one of Courtney’s old songs, Courtney doing one of Kurt’s, and both of them performing “Fear is Like a Forest,” written by Barnett’s partner, Jen Cloher. The relative abundance of older material suggests something of the record’s informality—it’s easy to believe that this whole thing started as a busman’s holiday, and the happy accident of their chemistry turned it into something more—yet the able studio assistance from the likes of Janet Weiss and Jim White suggests that there was always an intention of making this one land.

That ambivalence is part of the vibe here, the strange weather that Lotta Sea Lice conjures. It’s hard to hear it as anything but a labor of love—which is, perhaps, why its creators made such an effort to make it sound like a shrug.

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