Courtney Barnett's album provides distinct sound with dry deliveryBy Jordan Cissell | 03/29/2015 10:24pm
Courtney Barnett’s trademark stream-of-consciousness delivery is less the smiling UPS representative ringing the doorbell and conveying a package directly into your hands, more the disgruntled teenager slinging handfuls of newspapers in the general direction of your porch as she squeals through her route behind the wheel of an ocean blue 1973 Plymouth Valiant.
On “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit,” her first full-length studio album, the Australian singer-songwriter talk-sings her way through song after rambling song, each a cavalcading synthesis of everyday observation, bone-dry humor, pop culture reference and poetic deliberation reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s 1965 hit “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Barnett throws a lot in the listener’s way in a little less than 40 minutes, and most of it finds its way to the porch.
Album-opener “Elevator Operator” drops you right into the middle of a chunky, frayed Marc Bolan-esque riff as Barnett talks about Oliver, a 20-year-old in the titular occupation who bails on work one day to “count the minutes that the trains come late” and watch traffic from the top of a skyscraper.
In “Pedestrian at Best,” she riffs on daylight saving time, origami and existential crisis over Pixies-informed dynamic shifts and grating swells of overdriven, feedback-pierced guitar.
Barnett delivers every line with laughably low effect, her dry disinterest emphasizing the comical in the commonplace. While doing laps at the community pool, the narrator of the two-minute jaunt “Aqua Profunda!” identifies a potential love interest swimming in the lane beside her. An attempt to impress the neighboring swimmer by holding her breath for too long ends in her coming up sputtering and gasping for air. By the time Barnett has recovered, the love interest is nowhere in sight. Nothing ever really happens in Barnett’s stories, but what makes them so compelling is that they could happen to anyone. Think of her as a sort of indie rock Larry David.
Not every song on the record is conveyed in a torpedo of spoken-word screed. “Small Poppies” stretches along for several minutes in the kind of prim, reserved blues you’d hear at 11:20 p.m. on Saturday night in a champagne lounge in Charlotte, North Carolina, before launching into an extended coda of muscled drum bashes and trebly guitar jabs. On album-closer “Boxing Day Blues,” she ditches the talk-sing for a semi-croon, meditating on a relationship’s impending decline over the gentle rocking-chair strum of acoustic guitar.
In spite of her often-disengaged delivery, Barnett displays a knack for thrusting herself firmly into the everyday pathos of her songs’ narratives. She slogs through another restless night in her friend’s spare bedroom in “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York),” a pulsing bass groove and springy guitar runs providing the support for her drowsy rhapsody. First she counts the cracks in the wall; then she considers the color of the ceiling (“It is a kind of off-white, maybe it’s a cream”). But those are ultimately just distractions. “I’m thinking of you, too,” she admits, repetition driving the line toward mantra. With the track devoid of descriptive phrases of any sort, the listener has no idea who “you” is, but you can guarantee Barnett does.