“You’ve gotta let it go, before it takes you over,” Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett harmonize on “Let It Go,” a standout from their unassuming gem of a collaborative album, Lotta Sea Lice. The lyric could work as a mission statement for the album — sporadically recorded over a total of eight days across 15 months — or to describe the personas of the two respected singer-songwriters, who have built their careers on and lyrical informality and musical immediacy. Lotta Sea Lice‘s nine tracks breeze by with the easygoing sensibility of two old friends jamming in the corner during a get-together.
Fun and positive vibes reign supreme for much of the album. Barnett, 29, and Vile, 37, yip at each other and sing about fabric softener and Tom Scharpling on the jangling “Blue Cheese.” The two rockers joke about using earplugs during concerts on “Over Everything,” Lotta Sea Lice‘s sneakily epic opener. And “Continental Breakfast,” a quaint, sun-splotched ditty about the intercontinental friendship between the Philadelphian Vile and Aussie Barnett, belongs on the shortlist of rock’s best platonic love letters. (Vile’s married with kids and Barnett has a long-term partner.) The instrumentals for many of the LP’s tracks lope along in a similarly unhurried fashion, from the stoned chords of “On Script” to the languid arpeggios of “Let It Go.”
But despite its loose aesthetic, Lotta Sea Lice is the handiwork of two meticulous and detail-oriented musicians. It’s tough to make rich rock music that truly whirrs, and Vile and Barnett adorn their productions with understated vocal harmonies, loopy guitar countermelodies, and just the right amount of fuzz. Their musical acumen comes into focus during some of the album’s relatively harsher tracks. “Over Everything” culminates with a crescendoing outro that ominously swirls without overwhelming. Guitars and voices duel on “Fear Is Like a Forest,” a cover of a 2009 song by Barnett’s partner, Jen Cloher, but the swaggering cut never feels crowded.
Lotta Sea Lice concludes, however, with two of its most reserved — and best — moments. For the penultimate track, Barnett covers Vile’s “Peeping Tomboy” (retitled “Peepin’ Tom” here), and her vocals add a new dimension the track’s signature, effervescent acoustic guitar part. (Vile also covers a Barnett track, 2013’s “Out of the Woodwork,” earlier on the album.) Closing tune “Untogether” is another cover, of a 1993 cut by alt-rockers Belly. Over a plaintive instrumental, Barnett and Vile duet about heartbreak with the directness and ease lifelong collaborators strive for. What Lotta Sea Lice lacks in flashiness, it makes up for with enduring tunes and performances that, low-stakes as they are, seem destined to resonate and yield fresh surprises for years to come. A-