Stop me if you've heard this one: A pushing-40 dad from Philly and a 20-something Aussie lesbian become intercontinental pen-pals. So, they walk into a recording studio, talk at length about mundane things, eat some pizza and emerge with a smart, optimistic, guitar-laden indie rock record.
If that setup doesn't sound "music-biz-as-usual," neither does the result.
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile brought their surprising new collaboration, Lotta Sea Lice, and other songs to Dallas' McFarlin Auditorium Friday night. It was the penultimate stop on a grueling tour that will see 21 cities in 31 days.
Musically, the pair is far more alike than this review's opening paragraph lets on, and the new album sounds like a true partnership of equals. Released Oct. 13 on Matador Records, it is incisive, existential, wry and neurotic, without coming off as too theatrical or pretentious. Literate, if not expressly literary.
As a whole, it is a 9-song mediation on the songwriting process, specifically the mysteries, frustrations, terrors and joys of shucking the ego and offering oneself as a mere conduit to some nameless, faceless muse. It's a lovely, understated album by two accomplished songwriters, both of whom have a penchant for amusing words that shouldn't rhyme -- but, said just right, somehow do -- and whining blues riffs that "hang over everything."
Before hearing it, I'd felt skeptical due to an unfounded concern that the pair would try too hard to seem like they're not trying at all and possibly even get competitive about it. Imagine my delight at having been so wrong. A Lotta Sea Lice works in the studio. But, again, I reserved my judgment as to whether or not it would work onstage.
That's because Vile occupies an odd space in live music. He's too electric for an intimate, stripped down "listening room" experience, but you will never see him writhing around the stage emoting beneath elaborate set pieces.
In fact, you're lucky to see more than the top of his head as he gently shifts his weight from foot to foot, eyes hid beneath his hallmark long hair as he reserves the bulk of his attention to an arsenal of guitars. Don't mind, he's doing God's work. His resplendent solo album, 2015's b'lieve i'm goin down..., solidified a subdued brand of psych-roots-rock that, at its loudest, evokes Neil Young and Crazy Horse, circa 1969.
On the other hand, Barnett's breakthrough -- her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, also from 2015 -- presented the vibrant, almost chirpy, style of a fast-talking slam-poetess. She bounces, she whips her similarly important long hair, and she raises the volume at times to a melodious, punk scream.
Together in Dallas, Barnett and Vile brought the best of both worlds, rising to the occasion with with symbiotic assists and strong musicianship.
They began the set with rough renditions of its first two tracks, "Over Everything" and "Let it Go." Vile especially seemed tired and possibly even a little under the weather; his voice cracked in ways slightly less charming than his usual eccentric twang.
But, then the Muse arrived. Barnett began an inspired cover of the album's third track, "Fear is Like a Forest," written by show opener Jen Cloher (more on her later). Barnett was grooving, dipping low into her instrument, singing her heart out.
But, that was only half of the story. Three quarters into the song, Vile lunged into a guitar solo so nasty half the audience spent the rest of the evening with their hair up on end like Lyle Lovett's. The other half looked up from their smartphones and gasped, stunned.
This is where the show happened. The recorded version of that song is lovely, and its guitar solo well-crafted, if subdued. Live, it was like history stopped and everything from here forward began.
It's the reason you pay your money and leave your house to see songs you've heard a thousand times. Vile could have spent the rest of the night convalescing in a corner, strumming occasionally, and it wouldn't have mattered. He had Done The Thing.
Luckily, however, neither artist phoned it in -- nor did the Sea Lice Band, an all-star lineup including drummer Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Rob Laasko of Vile's Violators, and keyboardist Katie Harkin of Sky Larken -- in fact, it was at this point, during "Fear is Like a Forest," where everything became dialed in.
From there, they broke from the album track list by segueing into "Continental Breakfast," the most radio-friendly cut on the album. Warmed up, their vocals evened out and harmonies came together over the gentle, optimistic melody.
Next, the set broke completely from Lotta Sea Lice, exploring songs from each's catalog, including Vile's "On Tour" from 2011's Smoke Rings for My Halo, Barnett's "Depreston" from her debut, Vile's "Life Like Mine" from 2015's b'lieve i'm goin down... and Barnett's "Dead Fox," also from her debut.
They rounded things out with two more from Lotta Sea Lice, the raucous "Bleu Cheese" and their tender cover of "Untogether" from Belly's 1993 album, Star.
An encore brought Barnett back for a soulful, vocally impressive cover of Gillian Welch's "Elvis Presley Blues." Let us now pause and count the many voices of Courtney; within a single evening she utilized sounds that ranged from sweetly mournful to punk screams and now rasping twang.
Vile followed it with a setup, saying, "This is where I attempt to ... pump it up ... for just one song ... it was a rough night last night ..." before living up to his end of the bargain with his perennial showstopper, "Pretty Pimpin'." And, Barnett closed shop with her hit, "Avant Gardner."
We need to talk about Jen Cloher
There are rare occasions when the intermission between opening act and headliner is filled with murmurings of "Who was that? What was her name? I'm Googling her now..."
Such was the case at McFarlin Auditorium with Australian singer-songwriter Jen Cloher who, in addition to being a remarkable artist and performer, incidentally is also Barnett's wife.
Opening for each of the Lotta Sea Lice tour dates, Cloher's musical style is similar to Barnett's and Vile's, marked with the same clever turns-of-phrase and meandering musings. But, her 30 minute set differed due to longer, storyteller song setups and revelations. She charmed with comedic timing and self-effacing, finely detailed stories of both past and present.
She performed Friday alone with an acoustic guitar, playing "David Bowie Eyes" from 2013's In Bloody Memory, which she dedicated to ... Jim Morrison and Patti Smith, and a completely stunning version of her new song "Strong Woman" from her eponymous 2017 album.
During it, she produced a percussive effect with her guitar so loud and powerful it seemed as though she were backed by a full band. She left so much on the stage it felt almost awkward not standing and begging for encore.