Philly country-psych zen master Kurt Vile and Australian indie-rock orator Courtney Barnett are at once an odd couple and a perfect union—not so much a mirror image of one another as a negative exposure. Vile rarely rocks out as rambunctiously as Barnett, and Barnett doesn’t ever zone out to the same degree as Vile. And where Barnett can pack an impossible amount of observational narrative detail into a single couplet, Vile often spends his songs lingering on the feeling of lingering. But on a musical level, the two encroach on common twangy turf whenever their respective songs settle into a country-rock groove. And ultimately their differing songwriting styles serve the same function—they’re coping mechanisms against the absurdities and indignities of the modern world, navigating them toward an inner peace that always seems just a little out of reach. (That they just so happen to share first names with the preeminent power couple of ’90s alt-rock only makes their partnership seem all the more pre-destined.)
Their debut collaboration, Lotta Sea Lice, thus feels less like a collection of traditional duets than an overheard discussion between two misfits who just met at an Existentialists Anonymous meeting. Unlike most he-said/she-said pairings, there’s no romantic role-play here, no cheeky entendres, no faux-frisson milked for dramatic tension, no song that’s ever going to replace “Islands in the Stream” or “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” on hipster karaoke-bar playlists. Instead, we’re treated to an intimate, fly-on-the-wall perspective on two peers talking shop about their songwriting methods. They’re the sort of chats that tend to happen behind dressing-room doors or around backstage festival buffets and swag lounges; here, they’re set to a roots-rock soundtrack that’s as casual as the conversation.
But these seemingly mundane interactions are elevated by the audible bonhomie that Vile and Barnett exude when communing with one another. On the opening “Over Everything,” the two compare notes on their peculiar creative processes (he finds inspiration in solitude; she “speed-read[s] the morning news”), practically singing over one another with the excitement of two new acquaintances slowly coming to the realization that they’re actually long lost soul mates. After trading lines, Vile and Barnett sing the final verse in harmony as if sealing their friendship by blood pact, before mischievously steering the song’s breezy acoustic lope into a stormy, twang-tangled extended outro.
But there’s a lot more to Lotta Sea Lice than the mere novelty of hearing two celebrated musicians singing songs about writing songs. “Let It Go” taps into more deep-seated anxieties about staying motivated, with the war between creativity and lethargy reflected in the tension between the song’s slow-dissolve, dew-drop guitar lines and restless, hiccupping drum beat (respectively provided by the Dirty Three dream team of Mick Turner and Jim White). And where the windswept country shuffle “Continental Breakfast” is a charming paean to Vile and Barnett’s long-distance friendship, it’s also a glimpse into the dislocating, Groundhog Day-like effect of touring for a living: “I cherish my intercontinental friendships, we talk it over continental breakfast,” Barnett sings, before adding, “In a hotel/In East Bumble, Wherever/Somewhere on the sphere, around here.”
True to the album’s songwriter-workshop vibe, Vile and Barnett reveal more of themselves through a couple of covers and song swaps that allow them to get out of their own heads and dig deeper into the dirt. Originally recorded by Barnett’s wife Jen Cloher, “Fear Is Like a Forest” is a perfect fit for the album’s psychoanalytical themes, but gives the duo the opportunity to lean into a Crazy Horse grind (given an extra churn by Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa). And with Vile taking the lead, Barnett’s 2013 saloon-blues set piece “Out of the Woodwork” (translated here in proper Vile-speak to “Outta the Woodwork”) acquires a more ominous, black-cloud intensity. But the album’s most arresting moment comes when Barnett seizes Vile’s “Peeping Tomboy” and makes it her own, clearing up the original’s meditative haze for a stark, aching solo-acoustic interpretation, making lines like “I don’t want to work but I don’t want to sit around/All day frowning” feel less like an indecisive slacker’s mantra and more like the desperate pleas of an emotionally paralyzed agoraphobe.
As those self-covers attest, Lotta Sea Lice is very much a middle-ground meeting—there’s none of the wild abandon that marks Barnett’s signature songs, while the duo never approach the hypnotic allure of Vile’s most entrancing work. This is a lazy-Sunday-hang of a record: cozy, congenial, and only periodically exerting the energy to get off the couch. (It’s also unconcerned with being a little silly—though, fortunately, “Blue Cheese” boasts enough of a fetching honky-glam swagger to forgive throwaway lines like “I met a girl named Tina/That girl, that girl supplies the reeferina.”) Fitting for two songwriters raised on ’90s alt-rock, Vile and Barnett bid us adieu with a winsome cover of Belly’s 1993 acoustic reverie “Untogether,” which Turner infuses with lysergic, Mazzy Star-like guitar slides. “You can’t save the unsavably untogether,” the duo sing in harmony, obliquely referencing the inherently fleeting nature of their alliance, as their solo careers and family lives inevitably beckon once again. But Lotta Sea Lice is a testament to how two artists can finish each other’s sentences even as they live worlds apart.