Friday, October 20, 2017

album review: 'lotta sea lice' by courtney barnett & kurt vile

So I think I've said this in the past, but sometimes there are collaborations that just make too much sense, almost to the point where when you hear about them you wonder how on earth you didn't think of it first. These are artists that might have a very similar style or attitude or type of production, it's just an artistic choice that fits. And right from the start, when a lot of critics heard that Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile were teaming up, the collective response was, 'well, duh, of course they are'. 

But I was a little more reticent. I'll be the first to admit I haven't quite fallen head over heels for Kurt Vile the way a lot of critics have over the past few years, mostly due to a naturalistic style of songwriting and composition that was right on the borderline of sloppy. And if possible I was even harder on Courtney Barnett's debut in 2015, easily one of my most contentious reviews where I just was not able to buy into the self-contained millennial angst that seemed to add up to a fair bit less than the sum of its parts, all of Vile's detachment but none of the bemusement or wry humor that could temper an edge that was not matched in her production. But I understood how Barnett and Vile could compliment each other, with songwriting that would likely prove as tangled and meandering as ever - especially if they were looking to explore their own artistic process - but my curiosity was more on the sound of the album, because while Kurt Vile started off near lo-fi and garage rock, his material has gotten a fair bit more sedate over the past couple of years. So where were they going to take this sound?

Well, they took it to exactly the place you'd expect. Seriously, if you had any expectations on what this record might sound like, the weird thing about Lotta Sea Lice is that it seems to fulfill all of them at some point, and yet still feels like the sort of shaggy, rambling, kind of sloppy but still mostly cohesive project that we were inevitably going to get. Now this doesn't mean it's a great record - it's not, but you get the impression that it was never trying to be, and that does have a certain low-key charm to it.

And I think part of the reason why that is comes in the overall performance style of the record - if you remember the lethargic, meandering side of mid-90s adult alternative, you're in the right ballpark with this album, except the compositions this time around are at best looser and at worst kind of sloppy. But if you're expecting the spacier side of Kurt Vile or the rougher edge behind Courtney Barnett... well, in the latter case it comes with some welcome sizzle and thicker tones that occasionally show up to anchor the grooves of 'Fear Is Like A Forest', 'Outta The Woodwork' and 'On Script', and in the former it comes with tones that can feel a little more liquid and rather circular melodic progressions that nearly always seem to go on a little longer than they should. And I say 'rather circular' because again, even despite drumwork and basslines that are trying to hold a tighter groove, the guitar player that isn't anchoring the melody is playing with a slapdash casualness that might occasionally sync well but most often just feels like they're doing their own thing. Now that's not saying there aren't good moments - the borderline alternative country tones on 'Fear Is Like A Forest' and 'Outta The Woods' are definitely welcome, and the acoustic-leaning tunes like 'Continental Breakfast' and 'Peepin' Tom' are pretty solid, but really the tune that showcases the duo having the most fun is 'Blue Cheese', although throwing in the whistles and gratuitous harmonica might be pushing it a bit. And yet it's also very telling that this isn't really a 'jam-session' record either - the solos aren't incredibly distinct or developed - the term that many critics have used is a 'workshopping' record, and when you realize that a good third of this record are covers either of previously recorded songs or by other artists - 'Fear Is Like A Forest' is a cover of a song written by Barnett's partner and 'Untogether' is an old Belly tune from 1993 - it's all the more apt.

So what are Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile looking to explore here? Well, the straightforward answer is the artistic process, but it gets more complicated when you realize that there's a certain insularity to both of their styles, partially touched by depression but also because Barnett and Vile are more interested in the nooks and crannies around their own intimate environment rather than, say, going outside. And to that point even though the harmonies can feel a little slapdash, the writing can feel remarkably seamless, two artists in distinct spaces but with the same mindset. But that's all framing of the situation - what is this record actually trying to say? Well, not much concretely, but again it's not really trying to - most of it feels focused on a certain insularity in coaxing out inspiration and getting into the right rhythm and vibe, which might be more freeflowing and organic than many around them can understand or tolerate, appreciating little friendships and routines and maybe wishing they could engage with life and other people a little more, but that might involve actually going outside or saying or doing something and this record isn't going to get that far. If anything it's much more reminiscent of the singer-songwriter types that were prolific throughout the 60s and 70s in its general focus and flow, maybe just a shade more melancholic. Hell, it's almost easier to praise what this record doesn't do from a writing standpoint than what it does, positioning Vile and Barnett as more colleagues or professional peers rather than close friends or any sort of wrong-headed romantic framing. But at the same time, I do wish a little more of Vile's chilled-out, wry whimsy had crept in here, translate some of that looseness into something a little weirder or more upbeat. The closest we get is the goofy, semi-coherence of 'Blue Cheese', but maybe if we had gotten a few more original songs we might have seen more of it.

So as it is... look, as I said, this is the sort of collaboration that'll sound and feel like exactly what you think it would, and if you're into this sort of loose, indie folk/alt-country leaning sound, you'll find this plenty enjoyable in a low-key way. Do I wish it had a little more momentum or took a few more chances... well sure. This is a record that's not really trying to engage with its audience beyond a few good melodic grooves and some solid interplay, and as such I have a certain bit of distance from it. But at the same time that is part of the point and I don't begrudge it for existing, even if it's just going to do its own thing. So for me... strong 6/10, recommended for fans of both, but I think both I and the duo would warn you against expecting anything mindblowing. But if you need something easy and generally comforting in this genre... yeah, worth a few listens, check it out.

No comments:

Post a Comment