Collaborative efforts are always a gamble. All too often they can be an unsightly blemish on both artists’ careers, never quite understanding how to best utilize the talent at hand. However, sometimes there’s a pairing so remarkably congenial that it calls into question how the parties involved ever managed to make any music without the aid of one another. Such is the case with Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, whose project, Lotta Sea Lice, is forged from the fires of harmonious effortlessness that builds on the eccentricities of both performers and constructs something new entirely.
What began as an idea for a shared tour quickly evolved into jam sessions, in which Barnett and Vile allowed their mutual respect to blossom into a tapestry that celebrates their overlapping interests. We can actually hear their relationship evolve on the tracks, as they share existential fears and try to crack each other up with quirky jokes. The album opens with “Over Everything,” a call and response mood-setter which finds the pair swapping songwriting techniques while seamlessly marrying their guitar tones. From its opening bars, the record is overtly telling the story of how it came into being.
While both Barnett and Vile bring their own distinctive personalities to the project, they each have moments where they seem to be trying to mimic the other. Even the album’s cover has the performers seated underneath the opposite title cards. The experiment of trying on one another’s skin results in them meeting somewhere in the middle, taking the form of extended, mesmerising guitar riffs (“Let It Go”) and stream-of-consciousness lyricism (“Continental Breakfast”). Rather than simply focusing on their own contributions, each musician appears to be intent on truly understanding how the other operates, which elevates the records to a magnitude that surpasses the sum of their individual abilities.
This could also be said about Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile in their solo endeavors, but Lotta Sea Lice feels like a journey through the past. Drawing from a long tradition of duets, the music keeps its eyes planted firmly on the glory days of classic rock, with tracks like the instinctual, bluesy “Fear Is Like a Forest” and the grimy, battered “Outta the Woodwork.” Many of these songs were almost assuredly birthed out of Barnett and Vile exchanging impassioned opinions about their favorite Neil Young and Rolling Stones records. Even in the lyrics, we are getting a glimpse of the sort of fly-on-the-wall backstage dialogue that must have led to the album’s conception.
There’s something to be gained when creativity feels more like leisure than work, and Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile appear to have had a blast creating an album together. The pairing is a match made in twee indie rock heaven. Much like a great romance, they accentuate each other’s most endearing musical qualities, giving way to a union that highlights their feats in a way that neither has been able to do on their own. Lotta Sea Lice has all of the unfiltered charm of a couple of friends jamming out in a basement, with the added touch of the dauntless self-awareness of musicians who have already made significant strides in their craft. We can only hope that this collaboration paves the way for even more tunes from the duo.