24 Oct 2017

The Sampler: Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 24 October 2017

Nick Bollinger reviews a set of casual duets by Melbourne singer/guitar-slinger Courtney Barnett and Philadelphia fret-flayer Kurt Vile.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile Photo: supplied

A good duet is about more than just two people singing. Ideally, they should be singing to each other, and have something they want to sing to each about. Well here’s a duet that has all those things.

Lotta Sea Lice is the first recorded collaboration by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, and it’s the best and somehow most natural union of two standalone talents I’ve heard in a long time.

Lotta Sea Lice

Lotta Sea Lice Photo: supplied

Barnett is the Australian songwriter and southpaw guitar player whose outstanding debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, matched her deadpan singing to a great bunch of songs that captured her ironic yet intrinsically humanist take on life. 

The Philadelphia-born Kurt Vile has been around a little longer, building a reputation over the past eight or nine years with his full-bodied, sonic guitar style and an approach to singing even more nonchalant than Barnett’s. Their voices actually sound great together.

But how did they wind up making this record? It seems to have come about in a typically offhand way. The pair had met a few times at gigs and festivals. One day Barnett received, out of the blue, an email from Vile saying he had a song he thought might suit her voice. It was timely, as Barnett was struggling at that point to come up with material she liked for a follow-up album.  So the two booked studio time in Melbourne and the collaboration unfolded from there. And one of the things that is interesting about ‘Over Everything’, the album’s opening track and first song they wrote together, is that it seems to be essentially a song about songwriting.

That preoccupation with the mechanics of music making is a thread that runs through the record, and it’s one of the things that make these duets so convincing. Listening to these songs is like eavesdropping on a conversation, as Courtney and Kurt ping-pong lines back and forth, sometimes even finishing each other’s sentences.

When they trade full verses, as they do on the country-style ‘Continental Breakfast’, Vile breaks out his best baritone and the pair turn into something more like a slacker Nancy and Lee.

Barnett and Vile are not a romantic partnership. In fact, among the nine songs on Lotta Sea Lice is ‘Fear Is Like A Forest’ written by Barnett’s real-life partner, Australian singer-songwriter Jen Clother. And it’s one of the album’s highlights.

Though Barnett and Vile share a sense of humour and a downbeat approach to singing, where they really cement their bond might be over guitars. They are both old-style jammers of the Neil Young school. Their guitars are, in a sense, as much engaged in conversation as their voices. And one of the strengths of this album is the twin-guitar weave that underpins the album.

There’s the odd song here you may have come across before. ‘Peeping Tomboy’ first appeared on Kurt Vile’s 2011 album Smoke Ring For My Halo, but in a new version here it’s Barnett who takes the lead vocal while Vile doubles down on his terrific acoustic guitar part.

It’s more than two years now since Barnett’s first long-player and I was expecting a new album; I just hadn’t imagined it would be a duo set with Kurt Vile. Maybe you could see this record as a holding pattern while she assembles the real follow-up to that tremendous debut. Still, Lotta Sea Lice is a terrific album in its own right. Barnett and Vile certainly make a less dysfunctional partnership than that other Kurt and Courtney of rock lore, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. And you know what? I think I’d rather listen to this pair too.