Album Review: Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice

“Neither unfairly vies for the limelight: it’s truly collaborative”

For an album that could quite easily have been a throwaway exercise for an initial quick buck and fated to bargain bins thereafter, ‘Lotta Sea Lice’ surprises by building on both Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s unique styles – and culminates in a country record for the modern audience, blues-ridden and well-matched.

Barnett’s no-nonsense guitar style excellently complements and grounds Vile’s own fanciful plucking throughout the record – and when they each cover a song of the other, the results are spectacular. Paying respects but bringing their own style, Vile’s ‘Outta the Woodwork’ and Barnett’s ‘Peepin’ Tom’ instantly elevate the best in each other. The first has the former War on Drugs guitarist plunge further into the track’s heavy blues, dispensing of the original’s piano and emphasising Barnett’s signature drawn-out riffs. ‘Peepin’ Tom’ lets Barnett loose to cavort with the careful, plucked lines and inspiring wordplay. The pair are perfect companions – talented yet modest guitarists who are eager to bring out the best in each other.

Combined, their talents are seemingly unstoppable, with the original tracks amongst some of the best material either has put out. Even the covers are impressive; ‘Fear Is Like A Forest’ is a deliciously dark and dangerous twist on Jen Cloher’s folk; ‘Untogether’ warps Belly’s jangling dream pop into an epic, fleshed out with slide-guitar and solos. The shuffling drums of ‘Let it Go’ blend the intricate guitar work of Vile with Barnett’s looser riffs, following the couple’s trading call-and-response lines, whilst ‘Over Everything’ contents itself with gorgeous harmonies, deadpan delivery and swelling dual-solos which twist themselves around each other with needle-like precision. Such mutual understanding between the performers can take bands years to craft. Barnett and Vile work with pre-programmed intuition.

Despite the duo’s combined mastery of darkened wit, the album’s occasional attempts at brevity can meander into strange, bizarre lyricism and overblown optimism. ‘Blue Cheese’, a Vile song that has until now evaded release, features cheers of ‘woohoo!’ stripped from an excruciating family campfire and swathes of cringe-loaded lines (‘I didn’t mean to cough on her/ forgot about the fabric softener’ or ‘nanny nanny poo poo’ (?!)). Lotta Sea Lice works best when moulded as a true collaboration – but the Vile-heavy contribution is insincere and falsely naive.

Not quite the quick cash cow some could have expected, Lotta Sea Lice plunders the best of its stars’ solo careers and combines their merits in a glorious synergy, occasional misstep aside. In another world, the album could have been a piece of shoddy fan service. In this one, however, it successfully argues the case for its own existence. Though Vile and Barnett may not be the most famous Kurt and Courtney in music, they are by far the most harmonious – and Lotta Sea Lice is a record for the ages.