The transcontinental pairing of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile makes an immediate, intuitive kind of sense. Both are wry, casually thoughtful songwriters with immediately recognizable singing voices, hers arriving in clipped Aussie syllables and his a wispy Philly drawl. They exude an almost supernatural relaxation on record, coming off like the kind of characters who have both the chutzpah to ask for your last cigarette and the charm to bum it successfully. With their pointed features and mats of thick brown hair, they look like long-lost cousins.
But they’re not quite doppelgangers. And the subtle differences in their musical approaches suggested that each could bring out the other’s best qualities in collaboration. Barnett occasionally dips into grungy punk, but her best material inhabits the same languid atmosphere that Vile consistently channels on his solo records. Vile’s evocative but unspecific lyrics might be sharpened with the aid of Barnett’s wordplay and gimlet eye for detail. As for their names, well, the coincidence felt like a cosmic joke: while the original Kurt and Courtney became rich and famous cultural icons in part by their willingness to lay bare their most intense emotions, these two are often content to chronicle the mundanity of the everyday.
Recorded in Barnett’s native Melbourne this past spring, Lotta Sea Lice is an intimate and seemingly unambitious album, filled with songs that sound like conversations that were captured on tape as if by accident. For about half of the record, Barnett and Vile sing in duet, exchanging the lead every couple of lines, riffing on the lingua franca of touring musicians who happen to keep residences on opposite sides of the globe: blues riffs, earplugs, “backstage lethargy,” “a hotel in East Bumble, Wherever.”
Their banter doesn’t usually travel in any particular direction, but zigs and zags based on free association and inside jokes between old friends.“What time do you usually wake up?” Barnett asks to begin “Let It Go.” “Depends on what time I sleep,” Vile answers. Then, Barnett: “Eastern standard, open G,” and Vile: “Transpacific malady.” Barnett: “What comes first, the chorus or the verse?” Vile: “I’m a bit blocked at the moment.” The first time I heard Barnett rhyme “priestess” and “telekinesis” on “Continental Breakfast,” I came to a ridiculous point of comparison that I nonetheless haven’t been able to shake: When she and Vile are passing the mic back and forth like a joint, grokking and parrying and occasionally chiming in to finish each other’s lines, they sound a little like the Beastie Boys.
That these bursts of chatter manage to cohere into tuneful, memorable songs is a small miracle. Perhaps Vile and Barnett recognized that they’d stumbled on magic that would evaporate if they pushed it too hard, because the lead vocals on the rest of the album are more or less unidirectional. They contribute a few more originals, perform a Crazy Horse-worship interpretation of a song by Jen Cloher, and take turns covering each other’s tunes: Barnett does “Peeping Tomboy” from Smoke Ring for My Halo, and Vile does “Out of the Woodwork” from A Sea of Split Peas. It’s quite the menagerie of material, but it holds together thanks to the pair’s evident camaraderie and their willingness to indulge and support one another. (I’m still not sure what to make of a Vile refrain late in the album about “blue cheese up your, well, you know,” but I know it’s a delight to hear Barnett sing it along with him.) Lotta Sea Lice’s quietly masterful backing band, featuring two killer drummers in Stella Mozgawa and Jim White, also helps, pattering out easygoing folk-rock rhythms to match the singers’ offhanded stabs at profundity.
Lotta Sea Lice is strange, occasionally awkward, and easy to love. Like a good buddy movie, it’s a little sentimental, and possessed of a deeper wisdom than its goofy premise initially lets on. While working on this review, I had a dream of listening to a version of the breezy album opener “Over Everything” that stretched for 30 minutes long, like a “Desolation Row” populated by musicians and affable stoners instead of sailors and blind commissioners. With Vile and Barnett’s apparently endless supplies of easy charisma and insight, you could almost imagine it working.