Lotta Sea Lice is endearing.
It’s a fan’s dream to have two of their favorite artists collaborate, but rarely does it become a reality. Luckily, for Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, two of the most recognizable voices to pop up in indie rock over the past decade, their admiration for each other collided over years of brief meetings, musical obsessions and a mess of email threads. A mutual appreciation for each other’s work (Barnett has waxed poetically about Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile about her single “Depreston”), along with long-running strands of inside jokes and banter, led to Vile abruptly proposing a partnership.
That initial friendship would soon blossom into Lotta Sea Lice, perhaps one of the most-hyped duet albums to come out in recent years. Barnett and Vile are, unsurprisingly, a wonderful match, not only in their matter-of-fact vocals but in their jagged, dirty guitar playing and down-to-earth lyricism. Much hullabaloo has been made by the press about the similarities in their appearance, all long straggly hair and flannel like a couple of ex-grunge devotees, but it’s apparent that they share a certain bond beyond the superficial as their voices and lyrics bound between inside jokes and poignant observations.
Lotta Sea Lice lacks the stoned drift of Vile’s more compelling moments, and it doesn’t contain any of Barnett’s thousand-word-a-minute rants or rough-and-ready bursts of energy. Instead, the duo opts to take a more laidback approach to their music, slowing things down to an unruffled shuffle and putting an emphasis on their intertwining vocals and lyrics. While it isn’t a big leap musically for either of the two, the album’s casual nature demonstrates the duo’s strong sense of comfort with each other, and those moments of comfort lead to the album’s strongest songs.
“Over Everything,” the album’s original stimulus, was dreamed up by Vile as a duet with Barnett during a press tour for his last album, b’lieve i’m goin down. A lolloping rhythm sets a toe-tapping pass as the two wipe crusties out of their eyes and sleepily exchange vocals and guitar licks. Their call-and-response nature, usually directly responding to the other’s comments, are charmingly down to earth and turn the mundane into the compelling. “Blue Cheese” is, similarly, upbeat and loaded with ridiculous lyrics, the result of inside jokes about “blue cheese up your woo hoo!” and girls named Tina who “supply the reeferina.”
Consisting of around half original compositions for the album and half covers, Lotta Sea Lice is held together by Barnett’s and Vile’s unique deliveries, their interpretations both intimate and personal even on the covers. Barnett takes on a song from the aforementioned Smoke Ring for My Halo, a slowed down rendition of Vile’s “Peeping Tomboy” (here listed as “Peepin’ Tom”). While mostly faithful to the original’s introspective minimalism, Barnett imbues the song with a very palpable sense of sadness, pulling the song into the present and away from Vile’s wistfully melancholic recollections of the past. Vile returns the favor, taking Barnett’s “Out of the Woodwork” and beefing up the guitar riffage while laying out his lackadaisical drawl.
In fact, it’s an all-around family affair, with a cover of “Fear Is Like a Forest,” originally by Barnett’s partner, Jen Cloher. Crazy Horse riffage abounds as Vile weaves dirty distortion around Barnett’s admission that “Touch is like a tourist / You know when you are home / It’s not that I’m a purist / It’s just I’d rather be alone.” Cloher’s lyrics are biting and incisive, a sharp weave away from the initial mundanity of “Over Everything.” “Untogether,” a cover of Belly that singer Tanya Donelly would frequently sing with Thom Yorke during their first tour together, closes things with a suitably eyes-up-at-the skies melody, but downbeat lyrics. “We threw outrageous parties / We were golden” they reminisce together before admitting that “You can dry your eyes/ But you can’t hold the impossibly/ Untogether.”
It must be said, however, that the heart and soul of Lotta Sea Lice can be found in “Continental Breakfast.” Shakers and tambourines gently nudge the song along, as Vile and Barnett messily mix up their fingerpicking guitars and winsome witticisms: “I cherish my intercontinental friendships/ We talk it over continental breakfast/ In a hotel in East Bumble-wherever/ Somewhere on the sphere, around here.” Its accompanying video, featuring at-home moments with Vile and Barnett and their respective friends and families, is enough to instill a sense of hope in troubling times. Lotta Sea Lice is endearing, not only because of the quality of music, but the touching warmth that’s put into the project. The video ends with our duo animatedly talking to each other on the phone, their smiles and laughter inaudible but palpably visible.