By Arielle Lessard
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
Lotta Sea Lice
Especially these days, the world can feel needlessly loud. Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett’s new collaboration doesn’t concern itself with blaring out conclusions, instead they own themselves simply, aiming only to “bend a blues riff that hangs / over everything.” What else can you do, when you find a correspondent to bear witness to and finesse your whacked-out guitar charm and relatable observations?
Barnett and Vile meet unerringly in the middle on Lotta Sea Lice. Personal recollections flit from Vile to Barnett and back again, in what seems to be an easy chat, coalescing into a collection of soft-cut notes –guitar to guitar. The obvious kinship between the two is palpable from the buoyant opening song “Over Everything,” which in their accompanying video features both in expansive black and white scenes, playing each other’s parts and lip synching their partners’ vocals.
Barnett and Vile seem to have met their reciprocal match, a melodic pen pal arrangement, where Sonic Youth, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and other influences run free. Both lauded artists known for their rambling, pointedly true-to-life lyrics, they couldn’t have better banter. Their drawl and individual style is so keenly anchored that they build lush, falling textures with warm fingerpicking and chiming guitar lines without losing any gristle.
In “Let Go,” the duo gives a physicality to shimmering guitars in a song that evangelizes letting go like a mantra; “run the race at your own pace / you’ll get there.” In contrast, “Fear Is Like A Forest” (which feels like the second part to “Let Go”) is much smokier, featuring dirtier reverb and subtly wailing guitar, like a gritty-yet-mellow “Castles Made of Sand.” Barnett’s signature matter-of-fact wit and soft vocals make a promise of solace: “it will come back to you,” after noting that love often “touches like a tourist.”
They take the idea of collaboration even further by covering one of each other’s songs, blending in seamlessly with the rest of their work. Vile gives Barnett’s grungy “Outta the Woodwork” a whirl, the slowed tempo and Barnett’s backup vocals allowing for some languishing vocal harmonies – percolating an extra level of detail. A song that’s meant to explore the bad habit of limiting desire to avoid failure, the pair finds a vibrant sense of balance. In contrast, Barnett takes on Vile’s ballad “Peepin’ Tomboy” solo with a crisper, acute sound – echoing Vile’s original inflections and tone with a polish. The song sinks into the divisive space between wanting only to observe and needing to participate.
“On Script” comes on sweetly, relying on cascading guitar, fat crunchy lines, and very sparse vocals before going delightfully awry and relying only on instrumentation for the last third of the track. Though they lose some girth during the kitschy-er, harmonica-laden “Blue Cheese,” it doesn’t interrupt the flow and stays palatable. A strong backbone stands behind the project, as Mick Turner (Dirty Three), Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint), Mick Harvey (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and Jim White all had a hand in supporting common friends.
Like a shadow lit from two different light sources, the album brings together two powerful songwriters, eclipsing neither. Their analogous temperaments wind-down the album, while their meticulous mix of skills and craft keep things from ever being boring, instead creating moments of joy that can only stem from a strong mutual understanding.