By Eleni P. Austin
Lana Del Rey, Lorde and Haim have received a ton of ink this year. The praise accorded these women has been effusive, almost fatuous. Some of it may be accurate, but truly, the most interesting female artist to emerge in the last couple of years is 26 year old Courtney Barnett.
The Australian native grew up in an artistic household. Her mother had been a ballet dancer, her dad a screen-printer. Barnett received early exposure to Jazz and Classical music, but she and her brother were obsessed with pop culture.
Barnett picked up a guitar at age 10. She worked through a series of bands through her teen years. After a stint studying at the Art School at University Of Tasmania in Hobart, she earned a living tending bar in Melbourne.
In 2011, Barnett recorded her first EP, I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris and released it through her own label, Milk! Records. She quickly followed up with a second EP, How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose.
Both Eps have been gathered together for her American debut, on Mom+Pop Records, (home to indie superstars like Andrew Birds, Metric, Sleigh Bells and Wavves). The result is The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas.
The album opens with the meandering “Out Of The Woodwork.” Anchored by drawling piano notes and ringing guitars, the mood feels drowsy and slightly soporific until Barnett launches into a trenchant appraisal of a supercilious friend…”Just because you’re older than me, doesn’t mean you have to be so condescending/…it must be tiring trying so hard to look like you’re not really trying at all.”
Barnett delivers these stinging bon mots in a completely conversational tone. Three songs, “Avant Gardener,” “David” and “Lance Jr.” have drawn comparisons to Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. She employs the same “talking blues” style pioneered by Woody Guthrie that Dylan popularized. Her deadpan delivery and frank subject matter recalls the late (great) Lou Reed.
“Avant Gardener” blends shards of squally, psychedelic guitar, a rock steady beat and ethereal “ooh-ooh” harmonies. Barnett unspools a shaggy dog story of a “mundane” Monday. Fighting her lethargy, she attempts a day of gardening only to experience an allergic reaction and end up in an ambulance. “I’m breathing but I’m wheezing, feel like I’m emphasem-ing/I get adrenaline straight to the heart, I feel like Uma Thurman post-overdosing kick start.”
“David” is a sly rockabilly stomp. Stripped down guitar riffs sway over sinewy bass lines, a thumping big beat and an irresistible hook. Barnett is ambivalent about her pal, Davey, but she enjoys his uncomplicated company.
On “Lance Jr.” oblique guitar chords and a gentle keyboard wash buttress a bare bones melody Barnett gets right to the point…”I masturbated to the songs you wrote, it felt wrong but it didn’t take too long/Much appreciated are your songs.”
In the next breath she completely deflates her sideways compliment…”Doesn’t mean I like you man, it just helps me get to sleep/And it’s cheaper than Temazepam.”
Both “History Eraser” and “Scotty Says” marry ‘60s Psychedelia to fuzzy Garage Rock. The former is a trippy travelogue ripe with druggy imagery…”I found an ezra pound and made a bet that if I found a cigarette I’d drop it all and marry you/Just then a song came on: ‘you can’t always get what you want’ the Rolling Stones, oh woe is we the irony.”
On the latter, swampy guitar riffs ride roughshod over rumbling bass lines. The lyrics offer a catalog of woe and regret.
Three songs, “Are You Looking After Yourself,” “Canned Tomatoes (Whole)” and “Porcelain,” offer lo-fi, extended jams that cushion Barnett’s verbose narrative flow. On “Are You…” chunky guitar chords connect to a tumbling backbeat. The lyrics are a laconic conversation between Barnett and her concerned parents…“Are you eating, you sound so thin.” Her frustration is punctuated by whipsaw guitar riffs that weave in and out of the melody, shudder to a stop, and then resume for a few more restless minutes.
On “Canned Tomatoes (Whole)” Barnett mourns a moribund relationship. Here the guitars are feedback-a-go-go, over a caffeinated beat. The playing is angular and rudimentary, but the results are hypnotic.
Finally, “Porcelain” offers a series of non-sequiters in sad-sack waltz time. Amplified acoustic guitar notes and sharp piano filigrees underscore this lonely tune.
Other interesting tracks include the spectral “Anonymous Club” and the swirly kaleidoscope of “Don’t Apply Compression Gently.” The album closes with “Ode To Odetta,” a sweet haiku to the influential folk singer who was an inspiration to Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and John Waters.
Barnett’s sound evokes comparisons to artists as disparate as Liz Phair and Aussie Garage Rock gods, the Hoodoo Gurus. Like Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s “Girls,” Barnett seems overly preoccupied with the minutiae of life, but that’s a good thing. Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas is complicated in all the right ways.