by Declan O’Connell
26 October 2017
Do you remember that one kid you used to hate in high school? The one you always despised from a distance, without even knowing them? That is, until you happen to hang out at a party or other social gathering and have a conversation until 2 in the morning. Suddenly, you realize you have a new best friend.
Lotta Sea Lice, from Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, is that friend.
And after listening to this album, you realize that the very best things in life come from being patient.
Because Lotta Sea Lice is hard to like at first. Vile’s voice is too off putting, too strange, his twang too goofy, as he swoops in and out of key. Barnett I wasn’t impressed with either, because of her deadpan vocals. I didn’t think it was a terrible album, but I certainly felt it wasn’t for me.
The second listen through is worlds better than the first. Unfortunately, this album does not give a good first impression. I found myself nodding my head along with it, following it as it delved into psychedelic rock, blues, and folk. It’s a concoction that sounds strange on paper but is executed almost perfectly by Vile and Barnett. The instrumentation is relaxed. The tempo ebbs and flows.
Lotta Sea Lice is just one big groovy jam session. You get the feeling this album had its conception in someone’s garage: it’s like country-punk blues. “Over Everything” gets exponentially better after each listen, building momentum and tension enough to launch you through the rest of the album. The song “Fear Is Like a Forest” is blues through and through. “Continental Breakfast” is where the band starts getting away from blues and into folk, implementing a shuffle on the snare. It steams you away, sounding like a train on train tracks. It’s a roadtrippin’ song. For the last few songs, Barnett and Vile bring it down even closer to the ground and ditch the drums, bass, and the effects. “Peepin’ Tom” brilliantly spotlights Barnett’s restless tenor, with fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar making up the melody, followed by “Untogether,” where the voices of Vile and Barnett collide as one to give the album a proper sendoff. Lotta Sea Lices plays like a dialogue between two songwriters. It’s self-reflective. Candid. The artists see themselves in their songs. They tell us about themselves and recount their own stories: Vile is an introvert, a lover of solitude, who gains inspiration from the quiet loneliness of life–“When I’m all alone on my own by my lonesome/And there ain’t a single ‘nother soul around/I wanna dig into my guitar bend a blues riff that hangs/Over everything,” while Barnett is a storyteller, looking for inspiration in the goings-on of the world: “When I’m by myself and it’s daytime cuz down-under/Or wherever it is I live when it’s evening/You know I speed-read the morning news and come up with my own little song also.”
The album catalogues the process of artistry–“Books waiting to be written/Love is waiting to be loved/Songs here, underneath my fingers/Waiting to be sung”–and also the lack of inspiration: Writer’s Block. Vile calls it out by name: “What comes first – the chorus or the verse?/I’m a bit blocked at the moment.” It also touches on the production of music, and the routine and monotony that comes with something so full of emotion as music, with lyrics such as “On script every night/Like a well-rehearsed stage show” and “Wings clipped, no need to fly/What, do you think that you’re special?” which seem to describe the days of a musician once they “make it”: boring. There’s a temptation to cut out the emotion from your music, as a result of the music being largely corporate these days. Vile and Barnett talk about this.
With autotune as popular as it is nowadays, listeners will have a hard time with the two singers’ voices. After all, a real voice is hard to come by these days; many people have quite literally never heard an imperfect voice on the radio. And the vocals on Lotta Sea Lice are very much imperfect–and deliberately so. While this lends quite a bit to the voice of the album as a whole, it can be quite a hurdle initially–Vile and Barnett both seem to sing lazily, putting minimal effort into their parts. However, their voices will grow on you as time passes on.
In conclusion, and to go off on a bit of a tangent, gold is almost never found above ground. There is beauty once we start digging around in the dirt, and as Vile sings in “Over Everything”–you just have to dig.
Lotta Sea Lice is musical gold. Keep digging.
Declan O’Connell is music critic for Oswego East High School’s online magazine the HOWL