What does one expect from an album? More importantly, what does one actually want from an album? A brave artistic statement? A snap shot of the world from a particular time and place? A story? Something to deaden your mind to the painful trudge through the everyday that is existence? Maybe just a gentle collection of melodies to sleep too? Or perhaps you want to be a fly on the wall as two talented musicians get to know each other…
Lotta Sea Lice, the new collaborative full length album from Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, plays like a conversation. A good deal of it is about music. The medium is music. But it definitely feels a conversation. For better and worse.
Half album, half chinwag, Lotta Sea Lice is a moving heart to heart which flaunts Vile and Barnett’s personalities more transparently than ever.
The lead single Over Everything captures this dynamic perfectly and demonstrates how great it can be when it works. Barnett and Vile quickly trade lyrical lines, like old friends catching up in a hurry, about things such as song writing, wearing earplugs and the weather.
It’s loose, spirited, off-the-cuff and totally endearing. The admiration and enthusiasm that each artist has for the other is apparent and fills the track with a sunny energy that is contagious. It’s a meditation on the joys of making music that actually manages to capture the very magic it is about. It’s catchy, atmospheric, insightful and ends with a winning jam.
However, like any other conversation, there can be lulls. Let It Go follows the same blueprint as Over Everything but the results are somewhat diminished. Hearing Barnett and Vile cutely finish each others lines like “C: What time do you usually wake up? K: Depends what time I sleep” starts to feel like a novelty, and unfortunately, the music fails to offer an engaging enough distraction.
It’s as if both artists are waiting for the other to do or say something brilliant. Too polite to jump in and grab the song by the balls, shaking it up until it reveals something truly beautiful, as each artist has done numerous times in their solo careers.
It isn’t that the song is bad. There is far too much talent on display here to ensure that wouldn’t happen with this project. It just feels a little pedestrian. A little inconsequential.
Fear Is Like a Forest throws a little bit of vitriol into the equation in the form of a bluesy stomp-along number. It gives the band, as well as Barnett and Vile, a chance to stretch out and show off their chops.
Speaking of which, the backing band is a particularly impressive assembly in its own right. Mick Turner and Jim White of The Dirty Three, with Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint also contributing, make up an impressive rhythm section. Mick Harvey, the former Bad Seeds and Nick Cave collaborator, completes the Australian connection with some lovely guitar work; not an area that Barnett or Vile are lacking in at all, but a contribution that is inspired and tasteful all the same.
Continental Breakfast finds Barnett and Vile ruminating on life as touring musicians, and the feelings of isolation and boredom that accompany it, over gently plucked guitars and a shuffling beat. It is a clear highlight that demonstrates the inherent likeability of both artists, but it also hints at the darkness that’s an undercurrent in both artists’ most affecting songs.
Album closer Untogther, a cover of a song originally by ’90s act Belly, further explores these feelings and suggests the fleeting nature of this collaboration. It is especially heartbreaking considering Lotta Sea Lice’s thematic focus on long distance relationships; after the jam is finished, the songs sung, the gear packed up, all that remains is an eventual departure.
But shit, it sure sounded like everyone had a blast. And while perhaps not the best starting point for the uninitiated, Lotta Sea Lice is a remarkable record for so clearly capturing the enthusiasm, admiration and positive vibes that were such an integral part of its creation.
Lotta Sea Lice is out now.