There’s plenty to like about the music of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, but I honestly don’t know that it would have ever occurred to me that the pair would make dandy collaborators. While they both exhibit an arch cleverness and an unyielding faith in the worthy primacy of the guitar, I think of Barnett as punchy and genially anxious, which is somewhat out of step with Vile grunge-doused hippie comfort with sprawling soundscapes. In general, Barnett’s songs spring up, spill their ample charms, and skitter away. Vile has never sounded quite as contented as when he swelled the almost-title cut to his 2013 album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, near to the ten-minute mark.
Officially, the album Lotta Sea Lice finds Barnett and Vile take turns on songwriting duties — four tracks are credited to Vile, three to Barnett, there are two covers, and no collaborations — but it all sounds like a enfolding of sensibilities. And there are times when one creator seems to deliberately try to ape the other. I was certain that the lyrics “I cherish my intercontinental friendships/ We talk it over continental breakfast” (on “Continental Breakfast,” natch) sprung from Barnett’s inky pen, until I checked the credits. Across the album, Barnett’s propulsive instincts are slowed by Vile’s lackadaisical drag, and Vile’s slope-shouldered indifference is roused by Barnett’s alertness.
If the bedfellows seem less strange that I expected, they can occasionally get a little too lost in the tenderness of their musical explorations. Mostly, though, the record is sharp and engaging. Album opener “Over Everything” is an ideal introduction, alternating Vile and Barnett on lyrics about the ways in which hope and depression quietly coexist (“When I’m outside in a real good mood/ You could almost forget bout all the other things/ Like a big old ominous cloud in my periphery”) and the guitars and drums trot along with ease. The lovely guitar muddiness of “On Script” is reminiscent of mid-nineties R.E.M. at their most downbeat, and “Peepin’ Tom” (a revised version of “Peeping Tomboy,” from Vile’s excellent Smoke Ring for My Halo), with its rubbery acoustic guitar sound and Barnett’s warm, wafting vocals, amazingly suggest what Edie Brickell and New Bohemians might sound like if a rift in the timescape caused them to emerge today.
Lotta Sea Lice ultimately comes across as a uncommonly productive lark. It’s enjoyable, but it doesn’t give the impression that is it — or should be — the beginning of some long, prosperous partnership between Barnett and Vile. It’s no slight to note that one album might be plenty. The case is made. They work well together. There’s enough evidence already to make the judgment clear.