Monday, 7 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number Ten

I think it's fair to say Courtney Barnett is an acquired taste, and (I, at least) had to work hard to acquire it. Her first collection, the double EPs released as an album called Sea of Split Peas last year, was intermittently intriguing, but a little too abrasive and hard to fathom at times. I figured the same would apply to her debut album proper, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (extra points for quoting Winnie The Pooh), and at first it seemed like my prediction would be right on the nose. But I persevered and, slowly, this record revealed its true charms. And now I think Courtney can count me as a fan.

Like a lot of the artists in my Top Ten of 2015, Courtney Barnett is a storyteller who also happens to sing and play a few instruments. But she's a writer first and foremost and if these stories didn't have a beat, I'd still want to read / hear them more than once. Take the opening track, Elevator Operator, in which a hard-luck twenty year old has a chance encounter with an older woman in rooftop elevator...
A lady walks in and waits by his side
Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin
Hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton
Vickers perfume on her breath
A tortoise shell necklace between her breasts
She looks him up and down with a botox frown
He's well used to that look by now
The elevator dings and they awkwardly step in
Their fingers touch on the rooftop button...
Was he going up there to jump? Was she? There are no easy answers.

Next, on the supremely self-deprecating Pedestrian At Best, Courtney explains the complexities of being in a relationship in ways that makes her sound totally schizophrenic... or just very, very honest...
I love you, I hate you, I'm on the fence
It all depends whether I'm up I'm down I'm on the mend 
Trendsetting on reality 
I like you, despise you, admire you
What are we gonna do when everything all falls through? 
I must confess I've made a mess of what should be a small success 
But I digress 
At least I've tried my very best 
I guess this, that, the other 
Why even bother? 
It won't be with me on my death bed but I'll still be in your head
'Put me on a pedestal, I'll only disappoint you,' she confesses in the chorus... and you begin to realise where those Morrissey comparisons are coming from.

As with a lot of great writers, Courtney's devil is in the details. She even manages to write a song about a sleepless night and make it fascinating...
I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling
It's a kind of off-white, maybe it's a cream
There's oily residue seeping from the kitchen
It's art-deco necromantic chic, all the dinner plates are kitsch with
Irish Wolf Hounds, French baguettes wrapped loose around their necks
I think I'm hungry, I'm thinking of you too
Musically, she owes quite a bit to 90s American alt-rock. Think Pavement, Juliana Hatfield-era Lemonheads, Kim Deal. There's the same slacker ethos to her attitude as well, and a lot of dry, world-weary humour. Whether she's shopping for organic vegetables ('Dead Fox'), considering a move out to the Melbourne suburbs ('Depreston') or expressing the eternal party-goers dilemma ("I wanna go out but I wanna stay home" on 'Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go To The Party') she always has something interesting to say and a unique perspective to say it with. She may ultimately disappoint me, but it's too late: the pedestal is hers.

Next, at Number 9, an old drummer sings for the first time in 15 years.

(No, it's not Collins.)

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