This article previously appeared on Crossfader
COURTNEY BARNETT AND KURT VILE – LOTTA SEA LICE
Genre: Folk Rock, Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Continental Breakfast,” “Over Everything,” “Untogether”
When was the last time you listened to music for fun? Not in the sense that you listened to a record and enjoyed it or thought it was good; when did you come away from a record feeling the kind of satisfaction you felt after a boozy night out with good friends or watching a stupid comedy? By and large, the music community seems to consume albums with a different set of expectations than they would have for a film or a video game or any other form of ~content~. Perhaps it’s because an album is rarely as immersive an experience as those other things, and without an exactly correct set of physical and emotional circumstances for the listener, even the best records seldom cause the kinds of seismic shifts in mood that come with particularly affecting films or video games.
LOTTA SEA LICE, a collaborative effort between indie rock darlings Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, is an exception to that generality. And, to be honest, it doesn’t have many of the characteristics of a “good” album. It also loses points in the prestige camp for leaning somewhat on pre-existing material, with Barnett and Vile covering each other’s music, along with Aussie songwriter Jen Cloher and ‘90s dream pop group Belly. Nevertheless, the sense of unrelenting joy that permeates the record is simply undeniable. It’s an incredibly simple idea in some ways—a sincere, joyful, and touching record about friendship, made by two artists and real-life friends who come together out of mutual respect for the other and a desire to have fun making music, almost as if they made the record just so that they could clear the time in their schedules to spend time together. It’s the kind of feeling that Jack Johnson has gone for his entire career, or what Jack White found on “We’re Going to be Friends,” and at its best, it’s a remarkable antidote for a world that easily leaves one feeling alienated by the sheer immensity of it.
Vile and Barnett are two artists that certainly make sense together on paper—the pair were frequently compared to an indie rock Run the Jewels before LOTTA SEA LICE’s release, and for good reason. They share a taste for off-kilter lyrical wordplay, have the stage presence of an aloof wunderkind with a seemingly effortless talent, and a distinct sincerity and sense of humor. If one had to choose which was a bigger influence on this record, the choice would probably be Vile, but it takes on a more straightforward folk-rock sound than Vile’s solo work does. LOTTA SEA LICE sounds like it was made by two people who haven’t exactly found a “sweet spot” where their two styles blend together as seamlessly as one may hope, but in a way, that’s exactly what’s appealing about this record. It’s a cool little snapshot into the creative process and what happens when two individuals come together to start a band, and its musical rudiments are charming in the same way that watching a band made up of teenage friends is, but with the added bonus that that band is pretty good.
The absolutely essential songs on this record were released as singles for it. Opener “Over Everything” is a low-key, conversational song about warding away negativity through everyday routines and small acts of self-care (a distinctly Courtney Barnett premise if there ever was one) that borrows lyrics from email conversations between the two, and evolves into a spectacular, expansive jam section towards its end. The second single, “Continental Breakfast,” is a quiet but rhythmic reflection on long-distance friendship. Though the experience of traveling the world and not being able to see your friends because you’re a famous musician isn’t one most of us know, the feelings still resonate strongly in a time where the distance between people is made simultaneously so vast and so short. (Another thing—you MUST watch these music videos if you have not already. Normally, I wouldn’t go out of my way to mention videos in an album review, but these two videos are goofy, sentimental, and absolutely perfect for these songs.)
Beyond these two, we have a few pretty good tunes—“Blue Cheese” is a rollicking country-ish tune that is a lot of fun, but doesn’t quite have the soul of the others, their cover of “Untogether” is very good, and listening to Barnett cover Vile’s “Peeping Tomboy” is an interesting exercise— but it comes close to failing to justify a full album release and feels like the two were in a big hurry to get it done while also being a little bit short on ideas. That’s the biggest issue with this record by far, and probably the biggest one that will keep it off of end-of-year best-of lists.
When Tom Petty passed not too long ago, I spent a lot of time not just with his own work, but with The Traveling Wilburys, the late ‘80s supergroup he was a part of, and especially their most famous song, “End of the Line.” There was an absurd amount of talent involved in the Wilburys that spanned generations, and featured highly influential members from four separate decades. And yet, you stick all of this talent in the room and the most popular song they could conjure together was a hokey country two-step song about living life positively—it almost assuredly wouldn’t have been popular without the star power behind it. And yet “End of the Line,” nostalgia for deceased musical icons aside, is somehow an incredibly special song that packs a whole lot of feel-good energy into itself, the kind that you can only get out of something that straddles the line between sincerity and schmaltz. LOTTA SEA LICE is an album that has three or four (slightly more hip) songs that shoot for and achieve those feelings, and they are special songs amongst both artists’ very solid discography. It’s hard not to be disappointed that there isn’t more original material given how good that material is, and it’s a bit of a bummer that further collaboration between Vile and Barnett seems unlikely, but if there’s any lesson to take from this album, it’s that we should cherish this good thing, even if the time we get to spend with it is limited.