Indie rock weirdos Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett team up on ‘Lotta Sea Lice’
I’ll be honest: When Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett announced their collaborative album, “Lotta Sea Lice,” I really didn’t think it would work.
Their styles just seemed too far apart. Vile, a former member of the Philadelphia-based band War on Drugs, has always stuck close to that band’s style, focusing on a swirling mix of folk rock and psychedelia.
Meanwhile, Melbourne, Australia-songstress Barnett seemed to have brought a more traditional bluesy rock ‘n’ roll swagger that seemed at odds with Vile’s sound.
Yet somehow, the two managed to create an album that actually melds their two sounds fairly well.
In fact, the differences between the two artists that are highlighted on the record actually make for some of the more compelling moments on the album.
The opening track, “Over Everything,” which was also the album’s lead single, shows off just how radically different the two artists are.
While Vile and Barnett both sing the same melody, their voices almost make it seem as though they’re delivering two different versions of the same song.
Vile’s voice, which has always sounded a bit like someone trying to make a career on a Bob Dylan impression, makes the melody jangly and angular, while Barnett’s sweet, crooning voice plays it more traditional. The way the two singers approach the same melody makes the song almost feel like an organic conversation, rather than something meticulously planned.
This is true for all of the songs that feature prominent vocal parts from both artists, but especially for “Let It Go.”
This track is very purposely structured as a conversation, with the two artists asking each other how they write music. This slow, grooving track seems to be emblematic of the conversations that eventually led to the album itself. It’s a fascinating insight into the creative process that birthed the music itself.
Where the album really shines, though, is when one of the two artists takes a backseat to the other, providing backing vocals for them.
The best example of a track like this is the haunting “On Script,” a mostly traditional blues-rock ballad. Barnett’s voice here just aches, and it was wise for Vile to not overtake the track with his nasally tone. Restraint like this shows that, while Vile and Barnett know how to work well together, they also know when not to.
Barnett and Vile’s lyrics dwell in the simplistic, but elevate their topics into something more. The lyrics recall literary masters like Jack Kerouac, who worked to push the here and now into something greater than that. It’s often a joy to hear the two artists ramble about everyday life and figure out how it fits into something more.
But, for all its positives, there are some flaws in the record. The biggest of them is that Vile and Barnett often end up with rock ‘n’ roll that’s fairly by-the-numbers. No song on “Lotta Sea Lice” is bad, but they often end up being little more than exactly what you’d expect.
That being said, though, the record was a far more enjoyable experience than I would have ever thought it to be. Vile and Barnett are some of the quirkiest artists of this generation, and they have a great potential to make even better music, if they decide to keep working together.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan.
Album: ‘Lotta Sea Lice’
Artists: Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile
Best Song: ‘On Script’