Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile Lotta Sea Lice

A working theory: Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile recorded a whole album together mostly just so they’d have an excuse to hang out. It’s hard having friends who live in different parts of the world, friends you might see once or twice a year if you’re lucky. Barnett sings about just that on the new song “Continental Breakfast“: “I cherish my intercontinental friendships / We talk it over continental breakfast / In a hotel in east bumble-wherever / Somewhere on the sphere, around here.” (Vile wrote the words, but Barnett sings them.) Barnett and Vile live in Melbourne and Philadelphia, respectively. They’ve known each other for years, since a just-starting-out Barnett opened a random Melbourne show for Vile and told him how much she loved his Smoke Ring For My Halo album. If the music that people make is any indication of their personality, then they’re pretty similar people, two loopy and discursive and conversational songwriters. They both draw on crackly old records, and they’re both absolute monsters on guitar. They should be friends. And so they spent eight days, over the course of a couple of years, recording together and finding some kind of musical middle ground. Now they get to tour together, sharing stages along with a ridiculously talented band made up entirely of extremely cool musician friends. They’ve engineered a pleasant experience for themselves, and it turns out to be a pleasant experience for the rest of us, as well.

Lotta Sea Lice, the album that Barnett and Vile made together, is a total hangout album. It’s a lazy-afternoon back-porch sort of album. In its unfussy, unhurried sprawl, it sounds more like a Kurt Vile album than a Courtney Barnett one. It doesn’t have the vigor or zip of her records, and the two of them recorded it without her monster rhythm section backing them up. At first, I was a little bothered by that. Barnett is, after all, one of our greatest working songwriters, and I missed the gleeful urgency of her records. But that feeling didn’t last. And the all-encompassing gentleness of Lotta Sea Lice is an easy thing to fall into. The pleasures are subtler than the ones on Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, but when you get on the new album’s level, it’s a blast to hear the way she and Vile trade off molten guitar solos and half-finished thoughts.

The album’s title is apparently an inside joke, one spawned from a story that Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa told the pair. Mozgawa plays on the album, and she’ll also be a part of their touring band this spring. The people playing on the album show such chemistry that it’s not exactly a shock that they’d have inside jokes. Barnett and Vile recorded the album in Melbourne with a thrown-together band, but there’s nothing forced about the way they play together. Instead, you can hear the liquid joy of these people who like each other and who communicate with each other through music. It’s pretty easy to tell which solos come from Vile and which come from Barnett. And other than Mozgawa, most of the backing musicians on the album are craggy-veteran types, players who have been around for a long time: The Dirty Three members Mick Turner and Jim White, the former Bad Seed Mick Harvey, and Rob Laakso, the longtime Vile collaborator who also plays in ’90s-vintage shoegazers the Swirlies.

Barnett and Vile fit right in with the old timers, possibly because they are both old souls themselves. They end Lotta Sea Lice with a dreamy acoustic take on “Untogether,” a deep cut from Belly’s 1993 album Star. (Vile is my age, which means there’s at least a 60% chance that he bought Star from either BMG or Columbia House, just like I did.) “Untogether” is one of two covers on Lotta Sea Lice; the other is a casually strutting version of “Fear Is Like A Forest,” a 2009 jam from Jen Cloher, the Australian singer-songwriter who happens to be Barnett’s wife.

As for the originals on the album, Vile and Barnett didn’t write them together. Vile wrote three, and Barnett wrote two. The Vile songs exist in that weird internal-monologue slipstream that all his songs fit into. He doesn’t obey rules of songwriting or grammar or Euclidean geometry. He interrupts himself mid-sentence. In a single breath, he’ll shout out cult-comedy overlord Tom Scharpling and drop a nonsensical line about “blue cheese up your woo-hoo!” (My favorite Vile aside: “Game Genie, a million lives, never gonna die again.”) He sings about how he’s fucked up his hearing with loud music and now he has to wear earplugs. Barnett, on the other hand, writes more elemental lyrics, even when she’s describing something as specific as the strange repetition that comes with being on tour: “Non-descript / Every night / Like a well-versed get-well card.” And yet they still seem to speak each other’s language.

In the video for first single and opening track “Over Everything,” one of Vile’s new songs, we see Barnett and Vile singing each other’s words. And on two of my favorite tracks from the album, that’s exactly what they do. Vile sings a drawling, bluesy version of “Out Of The Woodwork,” the opening track from Barnett’s 2013 kinda-debut The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, with Barnett herself singing backup. And Barnett responds with a shatteringly lovely, entirely solo take on “Peeping Tomboy,” from Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo. In those two songs, “Peeping Tomboy” especially, you can hear the love and respect — the joy that these two take in each other’s music. Lotta Sea Lice isn’t a major work for either Vile or Barnett. But it’s a supremely fun hang, which is probably what it was always supposed to be.

Lotta Sea Lice is out 10/13 on Matador/Marathon/Milk/Mom + Pop.

Other albums of note out this week:

• St. Vincent’s bright, conceptual MASSEDUCTION.
• Beck’s crushingly wack pop attempt Colors.
• William Patrick Corgan’s Rick Rubin-produced solo rocker Ogilala.
• King Krule’s meditatively apocalyptic The Ooz.
• Wu-Tang Clan’s reassembled, back-to-basics Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues.
• Robert Plant’s folky, theatrical Carry Fire.
• Melkbelly’s noisy, giddy DIY debut Nothing Valley.
• The Rural Alberta Advantage’s harmony-rich indie rocker The Wild.
• Stars’ sweeping synthpopper There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light.
• Parquet Courts co-leader A. Savage’s solo debut Thawing Dawn.
• No Warning’s hardcore reunion Torture Culture.
• The Front Bottoms’ crowd-pleasing pop-punker Going Grey.
• Squeeze’s new wave return The Knowledge.
• Mauno’s liquid, melodic indie rocker Tuning.
• King Khan’s psych-rock solo debut Murderburgers.
• Dvsn’s R&B slow-burner Morning After.
• Dan Deacon’s score for the movie Rat Film.
• The all-star Tegan And Sara tribute The Con X: Covers.
• The benefit compilation Taking It To Heart, Volume Two.