Counterbalance: Courtney Barnett - Sometime I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you. The debut LP by a pop-rock wunderkind is this week's Counterbalance. She hasn't made the Great List of the most acclaimed albums of all time, but look for her next year.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
15 March 2015
Mendelsohn: It has been a while, Klinger, since I've made you listen to some sugary, flavor-of-the-month pop act with just enough critical cache to garner a little bit of acclaim outside of the Top 40. So when I happened upon Courtney Barnett's debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, I thought I might as well force it upon your ears because it hit that soft pop spot in my head. But before you start to see shades of Haim, let me be the first to say that Barnett is not a pop diva in training, and while she does have a great ear for pop music, she also has an incredible sense of song craft. Coupled with lyrical material about nothing, in the same vein as Jerry Seinfeld's show about nothing, it isn't hard to see why this album is so well liked.
Barnett had done some time playing second fiddle (no literal fiddles) in several bands before starting her own record label and releasing a couple of EPs. The EPs got her noticed and what came next was a full-length album with lots of nice press. Since we've been talking on and off about influence, the guilty pleasure of pop music and the circular nature of taste-making, I thought this record would be a good continuation of that conversation. The more I listen, the more impressed I become, not only because Barnett can walk the line between self-assuredness and self-deprecation but because she can do it with a guitar in her hands and make it seem effortless. There is a lot going on in some of these innocuous little pop songs as Barnett pulls from a myriad of different sources. But before I get into what I hear, I am interested in what you hear — because music is completely subjective and I'm always fascinated by the differences in perception. So, what do you hear, Klinger?
Klinger: I hear someone who, if she plays her cards right, has the potential to be the next Ray Davies. There aren't too many people out there who are able to stay so focused on the mundane aspects of daily life and at the same time unlock some deeper truth. That's a rare skill in a lyricist, and as Barnett plays with modern romance and engages in generally insightful people-watching, there's good reason to believe that she'll continue to mature as a songwriter. Interestingly, with her love for big chords and big riffs, Barnett reminds me even more of the late '70s/early '80s Ray Davies, and that's a complement.
On the other hand, we live in this time where building a sustainable career is no mean feat, and that's as true for indie darlings as it is for pop chanteuses. We're a culture that's easily distracted and too ready to move on to the next shiny object, and because of that I'm concerned that Courtney Barnett might get lost in the shuffle, especially now that summer's over and these often-perfect pop gems could start to fade like that suntan I never got around to getting. But before we get to fretting about Barnett's future, we should get a little more specific about this record. I think my favorite thing about her delivery is the way she fills a song like "Elevator Operator" with three-plus minutes of rhymes and near-rhymes ("I'm not suicidal, just idling insignificantly / I come up here for perception and clarity / I like to imagine that I'm playing SimCity") with such assurance that she actually makes you pretty sure that everything rhymes perfectly and all is right with the world. The self-deprecation you mentioned is there, but that reads more like a character she's putting on. I get the sense that she knows exactly what's she's doing, and I suspect she knows just how good she is.
Mendelsohn: That is a hard point to argue, especially considering the strengths of this record, and there are more than a few. Case in point: "Pedestrian at Best." This song is equal parts introspection and calling out the music industry's tendency to grind up new talent that can't hack it. She ponders the small success from her previous EPs and turns it on its head, laying out a plethora of conflicting emotions about success before kicking into a chorus of, "Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you. Tell me I'm exceptional and I'll only disappoint you. Give me all your money and I'll make some origami, honey. I think you're a joke but I don't find you very funny." There aren't too many young musicians who have had enough life experience to truly understand the fickle nature of the music industry and are still willing to bite the hand turning the crank.
I am impressed by your effusiveness for this record. I am also surprised by your comparison to Davies, you are not wrong but it wasn't the way I would have gone. There are also shades of Bob Dylan and a healthy dose of '90s grunge. The nods to the Pixies, Nirvana, and '90s rock et al litter this record like an empty field after a three-day music festival. You've been critical of '90s nostalgia, grunge music, and the 1990s in general. None of this bothers you? Not even the nearly seven minutes of sad-sackery in the form of "Kim's Caravan?"
Klinger: Look, that's not my go-to track on here, but I didn't want to lead with that because I'm trying not to be the fusty curmudgeon I was before we went on hiatus (although I don't expect that will last—I come by it honestly. My great-grandfather's name was Fusty.). And even though "Kim's Caravan" gives me the distinct impression that this album is a wee bit front-loaded whenever I hear it, the song still has a certain hypnotic quality that keeps me from pressing the button on it. I might also add there are a couple tracks where the soloing at the end could have been cut back a bit, but again, nothing serious.
And as far as this whole '90s thing goes, I'm not hearing it nearly as much as you are. But then again maybe I should clarify. For me, the '90s sound—in the way that you're describing—is kind of like mayonnaise. True, I don't seek it out. As far as I know, we don't keep any in our house. If I order a sandwich, though, and it shows up with a little mayo on it, I'll go ahead and eat it. Kind of my fault for not reading the menu carefully or remembering to ask them to make it without. Slather mayonnaise on there like you're frosting a damn wedding cake, though, and there's a good chance I'm going to gag (looking at you, that one time I went to Cracker Barrel). Whatever Miracle Whip Courtney Barnett's got going on here is alluding to the sounds of her childhood is fine with me. There are elements of that era on here that could be chalked up to imprinting, but they're used tastefully enough so as not to be overwhelming. The second coming of Silverchair she's not.
Mendelsohn: I love that your go-to grunge reference is Silverchair. Although, your comparison might not be that far off as both Barnett and Silverchair hail from Australia and seem to have a penchant for big licks. So either you know more about Silverchiar then you are letting on or this is some weird coincidence. Or are you still mad at me for making you review a Silverchair album nearly a decade ago?
Klinger: I had forgotten all about that (and for Counterbalance completists, that review exists only in print form. Please send us a self-addressed stamped envelope for your personal copy.). And there are no coincidences. Ever.
Mendelsohn As someone who still has some fond memories of the 1990s, I'm impressed by Barnett's ability to work in those reference points. The loud guitar and feedback don't dominate the record but seem to be weaved in and out of certain songs as Barnett and her band delightfully stomp through nearly half a century of pop synthesis. And that is really the strength of this record. The song craft is superior and it shows off a deep knowledge and love for her predecessors. Lyrically Barnett is climbing the mountain built by Dylan with nods to Davies' everyday observational powers. Plus, its just fun — the whole album is a rambling non sequitur. “Aqua Profunda!" is an upbeat number about trying to find love at the swimming pool. “Depreston" is a lilting, funny/sad rumination about buying a house in the suburbs. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go To The Party," deals with the existential dread of knowing you should probably go out and be social but feeling that it is much easier just to stay home. “Dead Fox" is either about the economic toll of shipping organic fruit and vegetables or road kill — I'm still not sure. It doesn't matter though, I could sit here and listen to Barnett sing about nothing all day long.
Klinger: That's because even when she appears to be singing about nothing, she's very much getting at something. "Depreston" appears to be about not much more than buying a house, but Barnett also taps into the overwhelming emotions that go into making that kind of decision—the worry about making the right decision, the compromises that one must make with one's partner and the need to rationalize those compromises to make sense of it all. (Or am I the only one who hears the sadness in the line "now we've got that percolator / never made a latte greater / I'm saving $23 a week"?).
At any rate, I know you might have been trying to get under my skin with your selection this week, but I think you've been hoisted on your own petard—hoisted, I say! Because I've been nothing but heartened by the emergence of Courtney Barnett, and I hope, perhaps against hope, that she's someone we get to check in on again.