Barnett and Vile have created something which both lives up to and confounds expectations.
Label: Marathon Artists/ Matador/ Milk! Recordings/ Mom & Pop
Released: 13th October 2017
Given the not-exactly-frantic pace of the pair’s own output – Kurt Vile’s drawling, ragged jams; Courtney Barnett’s shaggy-dog rambles – their songs frequently stretching out over 6 to 7 minute chunks of wax, you’d be forgiven for expecting their collaboration on ‘Lotta Sea Lice’ – backed by members of the Dirty Three and Warpaint and former Bad Seed Mick Harvey – to be a near-horizontally slack alliance, barely able to pull itself together enough to hit record.
But it’s obvious from ‘Over Everything’ – the first song to come out of the pairing – that the partnership is a fruitful one. While the song lopes along as sunnily as you might expect, the two trade tips on songwriting habits – “I speed-read the morning news and come up with my own little song” – and whether it’s a good idea to wear earplugs (hint: yes). Even the extended outro noodles never quite lose focus nor outstay their welcome.
And ‘welcome’ is the right word for an album like this: open-hearted and warm, with charm to spare. The two’s mutual admiration hits you straight away – Vile has called Barnett’s ‘Depreston’ an “instant classic” (he’s not wrong), while Courtney has said working with Kurt pulled her out of a songwriting rut. Their hometowns might be 10,000 miles apart but there’s a clear kinship which makes songs like ‘Let It Go’ – written by Barnett after Vile sent her ‘Over Everything’ – such a balm, and lifts the breezy, but slight ‘Blue Cheese’ out of throwaway territory.
There are slightly mixed results when the pair cover each other: Vile’s ‘Outta The Woodwork’ sheds the haunted, desperate feel for a ponderous country-blues, losing something in the process, but Barnett’s ‘Peepin’ Tom’ takes the same tumbling guitar figures as the original but piles on fragility.
But on the likes of ‘On Script’ – a fuzzy crawl, led by Barnett, about breaking cycles of negative behaviour, and particularly their duet on a cover of Belly’s gorgeous, resignatory ‘Untogether’ – wistful, with sleepy, sighing pedal steel – Barnett and Vile have created something which both lives up to and confounds expectations. Rob Mesure