Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile Lotta Sea Lice

[Matador; 2017]

Styles: indie rock, folk rock
Others: Car Seat Headrest, Big Thief, Angel Olsen

Collaboration is a vital element of rap music. Whether to further affirm the friendship between a pair of MCs or to simply reap the benefits of two lucrative rappers’ combined star power, hip-hop frequently revels in the camaraderie of a shared bill. But in rock & roll, artist alliances are far more precarious: so fine and capricious is the line between genuine artistic symbiosis and insipid, money-hungry tripe. The hit-to-miss ratio is, on the other hand, a bit more stable and even, though the collaborative failures are often more conspicuous and lurid than the successes. For every Scott Walker/Sunn O))) pairing, there’s Santana ft. Rob Thomas. For every St. Vincent/David Byrne portmanteau, we get a Lulu. On Lotta Sea Lice, however, the not-so-unlikely duo of Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett transcend the superficiality and contrivance of an indie-rock tag team, as they lend each other their stylistic strengths while simultaneously showcasing their individual musical faculties.

A born-and-bred banjo plucker, Kurt Vile’s finger-picking guitar mastery drives the tracks “Continental Breakfast” and “Peepin’ Tom” while also rising and subsiding to fit his and Barnett’s voices. Swelling during Barnett’s vocal interstices only to diminish at the verses, Vile, on “Tom,” borrows from her affinity for subtle dynamics in an act of reciprocal imitation that abounds on Sea Lice. By the album’s closer “Untogether,” Kurt has adopted his Aussie counterpart’s understated clawhammer strumming style. Barnett, likewise, tempers her verbose internal-rhyming lyricism to match Kurt’s comparatively economical linguistics. On “Let It Go,” Barnett elongates each syllable in her meter, unused to fitting so few words into a single line. And covering her partner Jen Cloher’s “Fear Is Like a Forest,” Barnett is again charged with the task of reining in her loquacious proclivities. It’s perhaps a concession in some respects, but Barnett, like Vile, explores these uncharted artistic territories with alacrity and aplomb on Lotta Sea Lice.

Often with duets, each vocalist sounds poised and on their mark, waiting avariciously to jump at their allotted verse and bask in their share of the spotlight. But on Sea Lice, Kurt and Courtney are endearingly shiftless and self-effacing, singing as if they have to be coerced like sedated show animals to hit their vocal cues. As the two swap lines on “Let It Go,” neither is vying for our attention, opting instead to attack each couplet by feel rather than calculation. Moreover, the duo’s languor emanates from a place of mutual respect and insouciance. But that’s not to say that the pair treat the collaborative nature of the album as infra dignitatem; their trademark laxness engenders an easygoing air of comfort in their rapport and instills a sense of calm as Barnett and Vile traverse themes of ennui, undesirably casual relationships, and, as they themselves put it, “intercontinental friendships.”

Droves of indie singers have strived to appear aggressively lethargic ever since Pavement weaponized slackerdom in the mid-90s, but few are as convincing in their sangfroid as Kurt Vile or Courtney Barnett. Whether performing as solo artists or collaborating, Barnett and Vile relish the looseness of rock & roll, never taking themselves too seriously, yet often crafting enthralling songs all the same. And while the album isn’t exactly synergistic in its coupling of the two singers — neither Kurt nor Courtney achieve their lyrical or musical apex here — Lotta Sea Lice nevertheless intimates an unrelenting kinship between its two auteurs. As Courtney explains on “Over Everything,” “You could say I hear you on several levels at high decibels/ Over everything.”

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