Courtney Barnett

Track 
Avant GardenerThe Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
Lance Jr.The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
Scotty SaysThe Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
History EraserThe Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
Don't Apply Compression GentlyThe Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
Ode To OdettaThe Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
Canned Tomatoes (Whole)The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas
Pickles From The JarA Pair Of Peas (With Shadows) EP
Pedestrian At BestSometimes I Sit And Think ...
DeprestonSometimes I Sit And Think ...

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Contributor: Rick J Leach

Writing a piece for Toppermost about an artist who (at this moment in time) has only released two EP’s plus one track on a compilation EP may be seen as a bit odd. After all, many, if not all, of the other artists on here have recorded and released much more music than that. I suppose one of the problems for anyone contributing here, is picking just ten tracks to be a fair representation of an artist’s output.

Anyway, you’d think therefore that I’d have no problem picking ten tracks by Courtney Barnett. I only have thirteen tracks to choose from. It’s simply a matter of leaving three out. But, as they say, there’s the rub. Which three? If you’ve heard Courtney’s work, then you’ll hopefully realise what a dilemma I have given myself. If you haven’t, then you are in for a treat.

And Courtney Barnett isn’t some obscure blues singer from the 1930s who only recorded a handful of 78s, or some whacked-out sixties musician who released one album on a tiny label in Texas and disappeared but became a heavily acclaimed cult figure decades later. Courtney Barnett is recording and playing live, right now, in 2014! This is someone at the start of what, I’m convinced, will be a major and stellar career. I don’t want to get too preachy or anything and try to avoid that when I’m writing about music; objectivity being a “good thing”, yet in this instance, in relation to Courtney Barnett only, I’ll make an exception to this self-imposed rule.

Courtney Barnett is so special that I have to start at the beginning for me, when I hadn’t a clue who Courtney Barnett was and my musical palate was getting a tad jaded. I’d got tickets for Glastonbury and one Friday morning, a bit out of the blue, the line-up for 2014 was announced.

I was pottering around the house, doing a bit of ironing (a very rock ‘n’ roll life style) and the news popped up that the line-up was out. I nearly dropped the iron on my foot and stuck the internet on to see who was going to be playing and who we were going to be watching that year. Emily Eavis (of Glastonbury Festival fame) had done a bit of defensive interview, a Q & A really, which was posted up on the Glasto website. In it she mentioned specifically the lack of clear and obvious headliners and mentioned something along the lines about “it not all being about the headline acts”.

Of course she was totally right, so right that it barely warrants a mention. What struck my attention was that she talked about the “exciting artists that (she) was looking forward to seeing that were playing on the smaller stages … such as Courtney Barnett”. Now, I’d seen the name on the line-up, but it hadn’t clicked with me at all. For some reason, I’d thought that “Courtney Barnett” was some sort of dreadful, derivative, white-dreadlocked, British soul-jazz chancer and I’d just skipped over the name. I had them marked down as a lesser sort of Newton Faulkner, if that is at all possible.

Why then, I mused as I poured myself a coffee, is Emily Eavis raving about them so much? And then, in some sort of road to Damascus moment, the penny dropped. A dim light bulb went off over my head.

Courtney Barnett wasn’t British, nor was she/he (even that point was unclear to me) some sort of naff poetry soul jazzer; she (I remembered now!), was a hotly tipped Australian singer. Where had I heard of her? What bells were ringing faintly in my coffee addled memory?

I looked at the dog. “Oscar,” I said, “What do you know about Courtney Barnett?” He wagged his tail enthusiastically. I took this as a good sign. “Well, I’ve no idea. What do you think?” He barked excitedly. Either he had become a very astute music critic or he thought he was getting something to eat. He was that happy that I couldn’t disappoint him, so I buckled and he ended up with a treat. That was all he needed. His interest in Courtney Barnett had rapidly waned with the mere promise of a gravy bone. I tried asking him again, but he was preoccupied.

Then it struck me. In a moment of boredom and shameful weakness I’d actually bought NME for the first time in at least ten years just after Christmas. I guess it was just something to read. It had taken me all of twenty minutes to flick through it and it was then despatched to the pile of papers to be thrown out each week. I’d only noticed it still hanging around at the bottom of the pile the day before. It had been spared. The relevance to all of this was that the main thrust of that edition of NME was that they were (as per usual) hyping the artists that were going to make it big in 2014. That’s where I’d read about Courtney Barnett!

And it was still there, unloved and ready for the recycling. I flicked through it, until I came across the piece on her. Like most of NME these days, it didn’t really tell me anything at all. I could have written the piece in about the amount of time it took me to read it. It made me long for the halcyon days of the NME in the late 70s/early 80s. Now that was a magazine that was worth reading; Lester Bangs on The Clash, Paul Morley (still arsey even then, but worth reading), Ian Penman, Danny Baker. 25p a week, photos by Pennie Smith and ink that turned your fingers black.

Nowadays you don’t end up with inky hands, but that is the only change for the good. No wonder I (and thousands of others) never buy it anymore. I think its days are numbered. Courtney Barnett was one of many artists that they were bigging up, and probably because of that I hadn’t made any effort to hear any of her stuff. It sort of worked in a reverse way. If they raved about something, then I’d avoid it on purpose.

Courtney Barnett photo

Yet Emily Eavis had singled her out as someone to look out for. I don’t normally think that the artists she raves about are the same ones I like – Muse being a perfect example, and I’d bet she personally doesn’t like The Fall very much, and I don’t suppose it matters at all – but something told me that I should give this Courtney Barnett lass a bit of chance.

Now, I wasn’t really expecting much. The NME hadn’t given me much of an idea about what she was all about; they’d thrown the usual words and phrases around, but as they’d used these in the rest of their pieces about the “new stars of 2014”, it didn’t actually mean much.

I had a brief look on Wikipedia, just to gain an idea, but again, Wikipedia being fairly neutral, I was kind of at a loss. I was then down to YouTube and played what Wikipedia had told me was her big hit single from 2013, Avant Gardener.

I clicked on the track and sat there open-mouthed. How the fuck had I missed this? How the actual fuck? 2013? What had I been doing? Was I that disconnected from things? This was beyond brilliant. This is what I had been waiting for. And more.

I’d been talking with friends for the past eighteen months or so who were into music and we were all saying and feeling that there wasn’t really much new or much worth recommending. We all toyed with the idea of different artists, of newly raved-about albums and tracks and of new bands that seemed to be mentioned whenever cutting edge or fresh seemed to be in the air, but nothing seemed to hit the mark. We all were kind of reduced to listening to the Ramones first album again and gradually coming to the same conclusions that we were all getting too old and/or popular music had run its course. There didn’t seem to be anything new under the sun.

The only options were going down the most obscure route possible and finding stuff that no-one had heard before or getting into genres of music that we’d all previously discounted. I even dipped a toe into opera. It was a horrible and creeping realisation that we’d probably never get excited about any new music ever again. It was something that was probably always going to happen, but too difficult to contemplate. Without being too over-dramatic (a bit dramatic but,) it brought visions of our own mortality into sharp relief. This was it; no more phones calls saying, “Have you heard of …” or “You just have to listen to this album, it’s fantastic!”. No more CDs or memory sticks with new music on and no waiting to see if what you personally thought was good was actually rubbish. We’d all end up buying Classic Rock magazine and turning into the musical equivalent of Caravan Clubbers.

But at that moment, a mere thirty seconds or so into Avant Gardener, I had both a eureka moment and a massive sense of relief. It was superb and simply just a brilliant song. The words; dry, wry, self-effacing and full of humour, were like a breath of fresh air. The music was classically good. Classically good in the same way you could describe Mahler’s 1st Symphony. The two things together were a perfect fit that seemed just so right. It was hearing something that worked so well. I’ve listened to enough music (too much music, my wife would say say), over the past 40-odd years to know what works and this worked so fine.

Instinctively I knew this was something special. I felt like Jon Landau, writing about Springsteen; “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”. Well, I’d just heard Courtney Barnett, and I felt the same. My faith in music had been restored and I wasn’t facing the rest of my life listening to the same old stuff – good as it is – over and over again.

Now I understood that there was a faint chance that Avant Gardener would be a sort of a one-off and the other songs she had recorded would pale somewhat in comparison, so it was with a slight sense of trepidation that I listened to some more. Luckily I wasn’t disappointed at all. Far from it. Her first two six track Australian releases (on her own label, Milk! Records; yes, she’s that cool she runs her own record label!) were compiled for international release as The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas. It truly is a magnificent thing and although it is simply a couple of EP’s stuck together, it’s as good as any record, any album I’ve ever heard. I’d love to say which are the stand-out tracks, but they all are. Every single one of them.

I am writing this bit at the beginning of October 2014, six months or so after that day and am listening to Courtney Barnett on CD. Yet again. The obvious and slightly sad twist in the tale might be that after initially being blown away by it all, my enthusiasm may have been misplaced and it would just be another CD gathering dust with thousands of others in my house. That is, I’m pleased to say, not what has happened. If anything, this could be my favourite record of the past decade, if not all time. It’s up there with Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde or The Fall’s Dragnet or Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love or … well, you just think of your favourite record and it could stand proudly beside it. I must have played it at least every other day since I got it in April and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored with it. I have raved on and on about it to anyone who was the slightest bit interested. And it isn’t just me who loves it; the consensus amongst my friends is that there is new music out there, Courtney Barnett is something special and we can all smile again.

So, Emily Eavis, you were right! I was looking forward to seeing Courtney at Glasto more than any other headliner. Prince? Metallica? It didn’t matter one jot. Courtney Barnett played two sets at Glastonbury on two different days and we saw both of them. Live, she is as funny, happy, infectious, fierce, intelligent and enthusiastic as she is on record. Possibly two of the best live gigs I’ve ever seen.

Since The Double EP came out, the only other thing she’s released is one track on a Milk! Records compilation, Pickles From The Jar. When I first heard that track, I listened with a sense of trepidation and not a little dread. What if The Double EP was a complete flash in the pan, and that all her creative work was behind her? What if I’d had a complete sense of misjudgement and she was a one trick pony. One great record and then that’s it. We all know of artists like that; brilliant debut records followed up by mediocre nonsense. I needn’t have been worried. Pickles From The Jar is yet another great song. Anything that includes the line “You say Christopher, I say Walken” has to be fantastic. You can’t go wrong with it.

Apparently, she has finished recording her first “proper” album and it’s scheduled for release “early 2015”. She’s played a few new tracks from it live and from what I’ve heard, we are all in for a treat. Two songs, Pedestrian At Best (a bit of a heavier sound than before) and Depreston (so bitter/sweet and what a way with words, yet again) make me so excited about what’s to come.

But if it’s recorded already, what’s keeping her? Come on Courtney, slap on any old bit of artwork, I’m not bothered. I just want to hear the damn thing!

 

POSTSCRIPT

So it’s January 2015 and Britain shivers under what must be at least 3 inches of snow and ice. The whole country is falling to pieces. Everything is grinding to a halt on this Thursday in late January. Manchester Airport has closed, gritters are gritting and snowploughs are ploughing. Schools have been closed, children have been sent home and the local evening news channels are grateful for something different to stick on our screens. Grim-faced commuters struggle home in the dark and Christmas seems a long time distant.

But don’t fret! There’s really no need to be so glum because on this Thursday night we have the new Courtney Barnett song, Pedestrian At Best to warm up our hearts and bring a smile to our faces!

I knew that something was on the way; something was bound to happen re Courtney Barnett because we already knew that her new album would be released “early 2015”. It was still a nice surprise – a late Christmas present if you want to think of it that way – to come home after a long, long day at work to see that she’d dropped the new video that day (see above). (“Dropped” – isn’t that the right word the kids all use?)

Anyway, on first (and second and third and more) listens to it, I am still astounded by the sheer quality of her wordplay, lyricism and humour. I had heard this song before; she played it when I saw her at Glastonbury and she aired it at shows during 2014, yet hearing the studio version gives it a more polished and at the same time tighter and more raucous sense to the whole thing. It is a lot heavier than anything from the A Sea Of Split Peas double EP, both in a musical sense and lyrically. God, she sounds mightily pissed off!

I personally always enjoy artists who sound angry and in this song she doesn’t disappoint at all. And for all those (like me!) who have been praising her to the skies for ages, her admonition of, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you” is a fair warning, yet in an double-edged way, it only makes me appreciate her skills even more. Sorry, Courtney, but anyone who can come up with “Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami honey” is hitting the mark in a big way! The way she pronounces “Scorpio” makes me want to punch the air and even though I wholly disbelieve all that astrological mumbo-jumbo, I have a faint regret that I fall into the Sagittarian fold. Truly this is up there with Bob Dylan’s electric phase; sneering, spitting and swirling maelstrom of reinvention. This is the new thin wild mercury music.

The new album, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, is released on March 23rd and I can’t wait; by then winter will be completely finished, spring will be in the air and there’ll be eleven new Courtney Barnett songs to enthuse over. From the track listings below I can barely imagine how great it will be. And if Aqua Profunda!, complete with exclamation mark, sounds as much like an unrecorded song by The Fall as the title implies, then all augers well for a great summer.

01 Elevator Operator
02 Pedestrian At Best
03 An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In NY)
04 Small Poppies
05 Depreston
06 Aqua Profunda!
07 Dead Fox
08 Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party
09 Debbie Downer
10 Kim’s Caravan
11 Boxing Day Blues

 

EPILOGUE
(a couple weeks after Postscript & a week before release of …)

Courtney Barnett Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every great album starts with a great track. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited kicks off with Like A Rolling Stone, Michael Jackson’s Thriller begins with Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, The Pixies Surfer Rosa belts it out with Bone Machine. The list goes on. I’m sure you have your own examples. But if you listen to a lot of music – and I’m sure that you do – then you’ll get my drift. You know instinctively from the very first ten seconds or so what is a great opening track. There’s some sort of gut instinct when you realise that it’s not simply a great start that’ll tail off, but that it’s a sign of things to come. You know that the rest of the record will be equally as good, if not better, and you can’t wait to hear all the other tracks. It must be said that this doesn’t happen that often; maybe only once or twice a year if you’re lucky, but when it does, then you know you’ve discovered a gem, a record that bears repeated listening for years and years thereafter. One you’ll never get bored with and one which you’ll want to not only tell all your friends about, but one which you want to give to them all as presents, whether it’s Christmas, their birthday or just because they deserve to hear it.

It’ll come as no surprise therefore that Courtney Barnett’s first proper album starts in exactly this way. Did you really expect anything less? Elevator Operator, the opening track, has that quality, that unquantifiable something where you just know. It’s got all the trademark stuff that you know you’re going to get from Courtney Barnett; wry, funny humour, sharpness, brilliant wordplay (which is so good not only on this track, but throughout the rest of the album that it takes my breath away), a killer tune (boppy as fuck), a narrative to die for, humanity, brilliant delivery and all of this in bucketloads. Yet it’s got something more. It’s got that track one, side one thing about it.

I needn’t really talk about the second track, Pedestrian At Best, because I eulogised it to the skies previously (see above… ed.). Hearing it in the context of the album, it makes even more sense. It takes things up from Elevator Operator and it’s at this point you recognise that this is a classic album already. It’s shouty and riffy and sets up the third track, An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In NY) perfectly. I presume that Courtney Barnett worked out the running order of the album; I have the distinct feeling that she wouldn’t let anyone dictate how it should go. If she did, then she got it spot on. The breathtaking pace set by the first two tracks slows down a bit, but this track is so focussed that it doesn’t matter. What I like about it (what I love about it!) is the deadpan delivery that’s akin to someone reading a very short entry from their personal diary or a snippet from a letter and it’s all set to a chugging beat. Every so often she breaks off from the half-spoken, half-sung narration and opens her voice up and sings the sweetest melody for a couple of notes. And at this point, I understand that she can sing so well.

We’re barely ten minutes in; each of the first three tracks last between three and four minutes and you wonder if this is going to last. Surely she can’t keep this up? Well, she certainly does with Small Poppies, a woozy, dreamy, torch singer-y, guitar twangy, half-jazzy seven minutes (exactly seven minutes!) of aching heart vocals that breaks into a wild guitar trash two-thirds the way through before collapsing back into a tired, world weary, gentle ending. It could well be the highlight of the whole album.

But there’s more to come.

Depreston, the next track, is a tale of house hunting in an apparently depressing suburb of Melbourne. (I’ve never been to Melbourne, but speaking as someone who goes to Preston, Lancashire, quite frequently there appears to be some unnerving similarities between the two places.) As a song it seems to be quite close in style to her earlier work as collated on the A Sea Of Split Peas EP, which is no bad thing indeed.

Someone once said that the perfect pop song should last no longer than 2 mins 15 secs. Well, if that’s the case (and it makes sense to me) then Aqua Profunda! which follows on the heels of Depreston, is a perfection in itself. Two minutes – exactly two minutes! – is all that is needed to tell the tale of falling for someone whilst swimming, with “goggles on/they were getting foggy” and rhyming dizzy with frizzy, but losing out because “you and your towel were gone” in the end. It’s the swaggeriest, happiest, most carefree song that involves missing a chance, that I’ve heard for ages. I’m typing this while listening to it and can’t stop smiling and tapping my toes at the same time.

If you have a title like Dead Fox then you’d think that it’d be a sort of Sisters of Mercy thing but in Courtney Barnett’s hands it’s a poem about realising that organic vegetables are the way to go. Another great tune but to follow it up with Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party, (which I think I previously knew as “Blah”), a thrashy ode that covers the staying in/going out dilemma that seems to hit you when you’re in your mid to late twenties (and probably at no other time in your life) is a masterstroke.

As I listen to this album, I’m thinking that every track is the best one, but they’re all so damn good I can’t decide between any of them! Three to go.

Didn’t I just say that Aqua Profunda! is the perfect pop song? Debbie Downer, track 9, runs it pretty close even though it runs for 3 mins 17 secs. It’s got a sort of 60s Nuggets punk riff to it, complete with a faintly swirling psychedelic Stranglers organ backing to it. “Hey Debbie Downer/Turn that frown upside down and be happy!” That’s the way to go Courtney! This is the sort of song that you whistle to while cleaning your windows or driving down the road on a summer day with all your windows down and singing along, out of tune at the top of your voice. It’s got a Walking On Sunshine vibe going on; everybody would love this song.

Bitter, dark, bleak, angry, sad; those aren’t the sort of words and emotions that I’ve led you to believe that Courtney Barnett is about, are they? I was staggered to hear the penultimate track, Kim’s Caravan. This is such a bolt out of the blue, which starts slowly with scratching, edgey, skittery guitars and builds up to a visceral climax with Courtney Barnett screaming, “Take what you want from me”. This is a truly amazing song and, for me, I hope it’s a direction which she’ll pursue further. It shows a depth and a maturity to her work that is startlingly good. The closest thing that I can describe it as, is try to imagine if Neil Young was 27 years old, female, Australian and funny yet still backed by Crazy Horse in their prime. It only lasts for six and a half minutes, but like Young’s greatest songs, you wish it could go on hours. (Actually Neil Young’s songs sometimes do.)

After that, you just need something to calm down with and the last track, Boxing Day Blues does it so well. A simple, slow, short and gentle tune with just Courtney Barnett, an acoustic guitar and pared down instrumental backing her up; her voice slowly fades out at the end leaving you amazed at the quality of this debut.

I simply cannot wait to hear what she comes up with next.

Courtney Barnett official site

Courtney Barnett in concert – full performance – Live on KEXP, Seattle, July 2014

Courtney Barnett biography (iTunes)

The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas consists of songs from two earlier EPs from 2012 and 2013 respectively, I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris, track listing: Lance Jr, Are You Looking After Yourself, Scotty Says, Canned Tomatoes (Whole), Porcelain, Ode to Odetta, and How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose, track listing: Out Of The Woodwork, Don’t Apply Compression Gently, Avant Gardener, History Eraser, David, Anonymous Club.

Rick’s third and final book about his trips to Glastonbury, Tea and Toast and Rock and Roll is available here both as a Kindle e-book and paperback and includes a lot about Courtney Barnett.

You can find Rick’s review of Courtney Barnett’s Good Friday 2015 gig at Gorilla in Manchester here.

TopperPost #362

1 Comment

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Oct 8, 2014

    Errrrr, OK, fairly preposterous to do this now, but hey, I like a bit of preposterous now and again. It would be preposterous for me to argue though, so I’ll content myself with linking to Courtney playing this Lemonheads song, a cover that is entirely suited to her, and also saying that if the album is going to feature The Drones’ Dan Luscombe (who was in the band the other week) it’s going to be an expanded and heavier sound. I’m intrigued to hear it.

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