Sunday, May 18, 2014

"A Sea of Split Peas" introduces Courtney Barnett as a talented rambler

Courtney Barnett makes it look easy.  If you watch the 26 year-old Australian singer-songwriter perform, she exudes a lackadaisical charm -- her hair slightly tousled, her shoulders slouched a bit, her left-handed guitar picked with her fingers.  And when you actually pay attention to the songs that she's playing, there's an off-the-cuff nature to them too.  A Sea of Split Peas, her 12-song double EP, is a conversational record.  Each of the tracks feel less like songs and more like a saunter through the tangled wires in her brain, where you are treated to observations like "I got drunk and feel asleep but luckily I left the heater on / And in my dreams I wrote the best song I've ever written...can't remember how it goes."

The biggest hit on the record, "Avant Gardener" -- a verbose, discursive tale about some sort of asthma attack she has while gardening -- is the epitome of Barnett's rambling style.  Somehow it manages to start off in a mundane place ("Sleep in late, another day") and over the course of five minutes, it casually ends with a trip to the hospital and an inhaler prescription ("I was never good at smoking bongs," Barnett notes in response to her inability to use the inhaler correctly).  The song functions much like a story told to a friend, full of diversions and extraneous details, and you get to know so many character details through these little lyrical alleyways.  "Reminds me of a time / when I was really sick and I / had too much pseudoephedrine and I / couldn't sleep at night," she remarks at one point, taking a break to tell a story within the story.  She even finds the time for comedy in the genius line, "The paramedic thinks I'm clever 'cause I play guitar / I think she's clever 'cause she stops people dying."

Many of the songs on the album involve the opposite sex in some way, but even when she's dealing with conventional subject matter, she manages to find an unconventional approach to it.  "Lance Jr." candidly opens with, "I masturbated to the songs you wrote."  But lest the guy get any ideas, she later says, "Doesn't mean I like you man / it just helps me get to sleep / and it's cheaper than Temazepam."  Barnett has a tough, no-nonsense attitude towards the men in her songs.  On "Out of the Woodwork," she dryly tells a former paramour, "Just because you're older than me, doesn't you have to be so condescending," and later she gives the sly dressing down, "It must be tiring trying so hard, to look like you're not really trying at all."  She has the ability of ruthless efficiency, cutting straight to the bone with lines like "I may not be 100% happy but at least I'm not with you."  But when she wants to, she can also be extremely tender, as seen on  "Anonymous Club," which is all about the simple act of human connection.  It's a song that's stripped bare and stretched wide, finding her at her most sincere and romantic.

However, Barnett doesn't only rely on the template of the love song to pack an emotional wallop, as seen on "Are You Looking After Yourself," the album's centerpiece.  It's structured like a conversation between her and a loved one -- probably older, maybe a parent.  The  loved one asks "Are you working hard my darling?  We're so worried." "I don't want no nine-to-five telling me that I'm alive," Barnett responds, more concerned with freedom and individuality.   Her elder asks her if she's saved some money for rainy days, but she's just thinking about her friends in bands, who are "better than everything on the radio."  Finally, there's a turnaround at the end, as she comes to the conclusion, "I don't know what I was thinking, I should get a job."  She then resolves to get a dog, get married, have some babies, and watch the evening news. In just a few lines, she captures the negotiation between early 20s aimlessness and real-world responsibility with a piercing poignancy.

"Are You Looking After Yourself" runs for nearly eight minutes, complete with a four-minute guitar squall at the end.  Barnett isn't afraid to let songs stretch out elsewhere on the album either.  Many of the songs expand past the point where she's finished with what she has to say, giving way to extended instrumental outros.  The seven-minute somber ballad, "Porcelain," slowly builds around a central melody before unleashing a staggering piano solo.  But for the most part, these codas don't really grow or transform -- they just remain locked in a powerful groove, a direct contrast to the wandering lyrics.

At its core, however, A Sea of Split Peas is sweet, simple rock 'n roll music.  The instrumentation feels very loose -- jagged guitars, limber basslines, playful drums -- but it's all of a piece with Barnett's casual vibe.  The record has a little bit of garage rock ("History Eraser," "Canned Tomatoes (Whole)"), boozy bar rock ("Scotty Says"), and even some country twang ("Out of the Woodwork," "Porcelain").  It's a mixture that keeps the record moving along without its bare bones nature becoming mind-numbing.  Each of the first 11 tracks feel like a bunch of friends assembled to bang out a song really quickly, and then the album ends with "Ode to Odetta," a lovely tune that features a lone Barnett on the guitar.

There's something magically all-purpose about this record -- it's an album for when you're sad, when you want a laugh, or when you just want to stare into the middle distance and listen to some high-quality songs.  This is a record that teaches you how to listen to it as well.  What at first feels oblique and off-kilter just becomes natural, and eventually, tuneful.  For instance, "Avant Gardener" has this odd delivery where it feels like Barnett emphasizes the wrong words in a line, rising too early and singing just slightly off-key.  However, it just adds to the song's strange charm.  (That charm becomes even stranger when you discover that she actually has a terrific voice.)  Courtney Barnett might make it look easy, but A Sea of Split Peas contains a clear vision and a level of depth that can't be faked.

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