Courtney Barnett : Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sit. (Music review)


Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I just Sit.

Courtney Barnett

Milk Records

The trick with the slacker style lyric is to take the mundane and give it a borderline spin that skims the surface from trite through to catchy clever, taking the listener constantly  by surprise from the sparky initial engagement through to the ownership of the repeat listen. Courtney Barnett can do this much harder than it looks thing, using her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I just Sit to combine a pared down pub aesthetic with a cool sloppily engaged leftist lifestyle about which she writes constantly. It’s her adulterous lines that get us in and keep us there, lines like “she looks him up and down with a Botox frown,” “gimmie all your money, and I’ll make some origami honey,” or “my internal monologue is saturated analog, it’s scratched and drifting,” or “I wear my heart on my sleeve, it’s harder in the winter,” as she moves and weaves her way around the expectations of the listener. This combined with the ability to see a universe in the smallest of life’s little gritty details, gives her the level of appeal of songs from bands like early Nirvana and even Velvet Underground.

Couple this cleverness with her ‘I’m everyone/I’m no one attitude’ – very much evidenced in her home cam-corder style videos – and you have a winning appeal that excels particularly because it never takes itself too seriously. Courtney Barnett may be ultra cool to some (ok not everyone) but she manages to include and avoid that with the localised referencing to the Melbourne suburbs and her partner Jen Cloher (Endless Sea) and her charmingly endless ruminating on their relationship.

Musically, she’s in post riot grrrl mode meets mid nineties alternative (sometimes Nirvana, Sonic Youth or The Breeders) sound that manages to never dip into a California garage aesthetic leaving it with a fresh feel competently building on its own carefully defined history. Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I just Sit is a careful combination of that which she loves and that which she thinks is important – in other words, its music she herself likes to listen to. It adds another layer of complexity to the casual style that seems so deceptively simple. Take a song like ‘Dead Fox’ that deals with the difficult-to-make-sexy Australian debate of road haul investment over freight rail (particularly the Melbourne east west link) with the repeated phrase “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you” giving weight to the idea of invisible pesticides screwing with the food, the “Jackson Pollock Possum is painted in the tar” behind the giant trucks speeding to deliver cheap veg to the supermarket shelves, and the idea of relating her hay fever to “big business overtaking without indicating.” It’s her ability to apply a multiple of signified meanings to her lyrics that give them the gravitas normally absent from this style of music that tends to lean more toward a committed integrity of artistic style. Barnett is deliberately not interested in making a pop star of herself, so the focus is all on the songs as self-contained universes that happily stand alone.

Image taken from 'Something You Said' interview.

Image taken from ‘Something You Said’ interview.

Having said that, usually artists can’t help themselves, and she does dip and tumble into some alternate styles reminding us she’s diverse, perhaps to keep us on our toes as we thought we had her nailed. Take ‘Kim’s Caravan,’ the song that has a stronger sort of Australian slide to it, dipping into Bad Seeds territory and even… dare I say it, The Church. Her Aussie droning voice slides around lines like “drank till I was sinking, sank till I was thinking,” as she laments the state of the world through the lens of Australian environmentalism, but trends toward the greater theme of a post-structuralist repine on the misinterpretation of each other. It’s a cause of anxiety for the lyricist/writer, as exemplified in the Bad Seeds song ‘We Call Upon the Author,’ who knows only too well the determined drive for creative clarity will be distorted by perspective. Here Barnett takes an unusually serious turn in joining her voice to this lament.

Sticking to this theme, she closes Sometimes I sit and Think and Sometimes I just sit with ‘Boxing Day Blues’ which is lilting into the dreamy space of contrite lovers who have hurt each other and seek to find a way through the haze of emotional distance to find a space for reconciliation. It’s a gentle little unassuming close to a very strong debut that ends rather as Courtney Barnett presents herself all over; Gentle, small, deep, warm and with a promise of fun.

Highly recommended.