Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
It happens to some people, apparently, when they hear the opening strains of Downunder in a superannuants’ youth hostel somewhere in Europe or an INXS song comes on a classic hits station in NumbNuts, Nebraska.
INXS - DON'T CHANGE
These days it may also happen catching a glimpse of Noah Taylor on screen in some regular American movie showing in a theatre you’ve stumbled into to get away from the busload of selfie stick-wielding tourists looking for that special I-moment.
For me I didn’t even have to leave the city, let alone the country for it to happen. I’ve never felt more Australian – or perhaps more appropriately I should say, none more Aussie – than when Blake Scott of Melbourne band the Peep Tempel was delivering dry-as, piss-taking bon mots at the recent announcement of the Australian Music Prize.
THE PEEP TEMPEL - CAROL
If I drank beer I’d have sunk two or three in his honour, toasting the easy manner with words, wit and lack of pretention.
Which is pretty much where I am with Courtney Barnett’s debut album. Yes, debut, even though it seems like an age that we’ve been talking about her, both here and internationally, and listening to a swag of songs that actually were from two EPs released in 2013 and early 2014.
COURTNEY BARNETT - AVANT GARDENER
Barnett is laconic to the point of slacker – so convincing is she in An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY) when she sings “I lay awake at four staring at the walls, counting all the cracks backwards in my best French” that you would believe she recorded it supine in that bed. But it comes without the attendant ennui that was part of the real or imagined slacker rock.
Instead she sings like you imagine she’d talk if you sat next to her on the tram. Or, in the case of Boxing Day Blues, how she’d talk when she was so weary and forlorn that she’d lay her head on your shoulders and confess all to a stranger.
Barnett is unmistakably accented, but not of the nasally “I sing about the Nullabor in my Byron hippie sandals” strain of modern folkie locals, more like someone who isn’t trying too hard to be anything else. And she is bloody funny when she feels like it too.
With all this she sings of matters so small they would barely register as quotidian (crumbs from soy and linseed bread smeared with Vegemite?) but brings both a fierce eye for the personal (“Oliver Paul, 20 years old/thick head of hair, worries he’s going bald”), a way of surreptitiously building small things on top of small things til they turn into big topics without you noticing and a flair for the casually poetic.
She’s as capable of, within the same wickedly appealing alternative driving on an open highway song, Dead Fox, giving us “Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables and I must admit that I was a little sceptical at first/A little pesticide can’t hurt” and then “taxidermy kangaroos are littered on the shoulders, a possum Jackson Pollock is painted on the tar”.
That last line then followed – topped? - by “sometimes I think a single sneeze could be the end of us, my hayfever is turning up/Just swerved into a passing truck, big business overtaking... without indicating”.
Put it this way, there are few things more Australian than Courtney Barnett in song. To which you could add a willingness to be raw, to be tender, to be gritty and garage-y and then quite soulful (without making anything like soul music), to create a slow burn furnace that rages hard in its last minutes like Kim’s Caravan and to be catchy as all get out when you could think yourself jumped back to the mid ‘80s and Lighthouse Keepers and Killjoys are doing a double header.
Depreston and Small Poppies are like irresistible surf songs for the downhearted, Aqua Profunda! makes you want to dance with your thumbs hooked in your belt loops and if Debbie Downer is like a Mod party across its near-twinkling organ line, Nobody Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party repositions the Rolling Stones in replica ODI shirts at the G. It’s pop mate.
All this is why for me Barnett is the natural successor – or companion, given hopefully he’s not going away any time soon - to Tim Rogers. (Though she’d not like this elevation that much, no doubt quoting a line from the chunky swinging rock corker, Pedestrian At Best, “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”).
YOU AM I - GOOD MORNIN'
Like Rogers at his best, she gives you a song you want to make your own and within that makes you feel intimately connected not just to the song but a hundred other people hearing the song at the same time. All of whom know exactly the subcutaneous meaning, in whichever part of Australia they’re living.
COURTNEY BARNETT - PEDESTRIAN AT BEST
But for all the references to the 96 tram line, the trauma of house hunting in outer suburban Preston (with or without police intervention) and eating hot chips on Phillip Island, there is something completely international or at least above/beyond nationality in these songs. The key is that the detail is character connecting not listener alienating.
It’s one reason why she can translate to American TV (cue insecure Australian cries of "Ellen loves her! Woohoo, Go Australia!" etc) or European festivals.
Well, that and the fact these songs are so easy to hook on to. Something which never hurts, but means less in the long run if you don’t want to stay attached. I don’t think that will be a problem for Barnett.