March 2015

Arts & Letters

Particular visions

By Anwen Crawford
Courtney Barnett. © Adela Loconte
Courtney Barnett’s ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’ and Darren Hanlon’s ‘Where Did You Come From?’

I don’t think Courtney Barnett would mind me saying that her album makes a great kitchen listen. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, to be released on 23 March, blends stories of domestic mundanity with a loose, large sound. It’s an album that makes sense at home, and it will make equal sense when played on the radio or at a loud, humid gig. This broad appeal means it’s almost certain to be a hit.

Barnett’s star has risen fast. In 2012, the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter released her first EP, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, on the independent label Milk! Records, which she set up herself. A second EP, How To Carve a Carrot into a Rose, followed in early 2013. The two recordings, re-released together the same year as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, gained Barnett worldwide attention. She appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in the US, played the Glastonbury Festival in Britain, and received notice from the influential music website Pitchfork. This album, her first full-length recording, has been highly anticipated.

My first impression of Courtney Barnett was not a positive one. In late 2013 she performed a cover of Kanye West’s ‘Black Skinhead’ for Triple J and altered several of the lyrics, apparently oblivious to the song’s pointed commentary on race relations in the US. It was a decision that Barnett later described as a “misjudgement”, and she was right – it also seemed indicative of a deeper malaise within indie rock, a failure by white musicians to approach hip-hop as anything but a diverting novelty. At the time, Barnett drew a parallel between hip-hop’s wordiness and her own: it was an interesting comparison, and one that’s rarely made between rock and hip-hop lyricists. Barnett is wordy, but her tone can be arch, and that can become wearying – it was also a bad match for West’s deadly serious song.

Sometimes I Sit … is a leap forward for Barnett, not least because she demonstrates the confidence to relinquish her tight grip on narrative and let her voice and music tell their own stories. ‘Small Poppies’, for instance, the fourth song on the album, has a blues swagger. The tempo is slow, and the arrangement slides repeatedly into extended, wordless passages of distorted guitar. Barnett’s guitar-playing is the skill for which she has, so far, received the least attention, but she’s very good – equal parts melody and grit, with a touch of the rock star’s proper flair. ‘Small Poppies’ might even be addressed to her naysayers, not that she has many. “I don’t know quite who I am / But oh man, I am trying,” she sings. “I make mistakes until I get it right.”

The album’s lead single, ‘Pedestrian At Best’, is a defensive move against the attention that Barnett has already received, and the backlash that she is smart enough to realise will inevitably follow. “Put me on a pedestal / And I’ll only disappoint you,” she hollers. “Tell me I’m exceptional / I promise to exploit you.” In the hype around Barnett so far, there has often been the implication – if not the outright declaration – that she is “better” than her female peers, because she plays rock and not pop music, because she doesn’t dress up or dance or otherwise draw attention to her appearance. There’s a strong, useless and narrow-minded bias in Australian music towards an ideal of rock “authenticity”. Barnett is good on her own terms, and she should be appreciated as such. There is space for more than one kind of female performer in popular music, though we often talk as if the room were only big enough to accommodate one woman at a time. Her casual image is an informed aesthetic decision, as much as it would be if she chose to wear frocks and heels.

Barnett writes from a perspective that many of her listeners would share – that of a young, educated city-dweller whose cultural capital hasn’t translated into any kind of economic security. She’s smart but poor, in other words. ‘Depreston’, the album’s midpoint, has had a place in Barnett’s live set for some time, and it’s the gentlest, most melodic track on the record – a canny choice for a song about the difficulty of finding an affordable place to live. Most performers would have done it as an angry screed. The narrator views a house in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and becomes distracted from real-estate talk by the objects left over from the house’s former inhabitants: “A collection of those canisters for coffee, tea and flour / And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam”. The details ring poignant and true, and the song gains from leaving the rest of this story-within-a-story to the imagination of listeners. Less can be more.

Sometimes I Sit … lags after this. Three or four songs that follow are too musically indistinct, too thematically slight. ‘Aqua Profunda!’, a short sketch about trying to impress a stranger at the swimming pool, harks back to the accident-prone persona of Barnett’s breakout track, ‘Avant Gardener’, from her second EP. “I took a tumble turn for the worse / It’s a curse / My lack of athleticism,” she sings, and it’s clever without being compelling.

Momentum picks up again on ‘Kim’s Caravan’, the album’s penultimate track. It’s a strange, spooky song that stands out on the record – a beachside monologue that takes in hot chips, loneliness and environmental degradation. “Watermarks on the ceiling / I can see Jesus and he’s frowning at me,” it opens. As with ‘Small Poppies’, the music is allowed to billow and expand – there’s a hint of The Drones’ abrasive pessimism, and that makes sense, given that Drones guitarist Dan Luscombe is a member of Barnett’s band.

The lyrics of Barnett’s songs are printed on the album sleeve in her own handwriting; the artwork consists of her line drawings. Many people have discussed Barnett’s music in relation to underground rock of the early 1990s, but the ’90s spirit she most evokes, for me, is that of the zine maker – and Barnett has made zines – pursuing her own intimate, particular vision across several mediums. Barnett is in this for the long haul, and it will be even more interesting to see where she heads next.

Where Did You Come From? is Darren Hanlon’s fifth album, and as the title hints, it’s the work of a traveller. Like so many before him, Hanlon has found a wellspring for his songwriting in the American south, in the towns and studios where popular music was born. During the making of this record, he visited Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans. Among other locations, he recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (previously graced by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett), and in an abandoned radio station where Elvis Presley once sang.

And yet, Where Did You Come From? is not obviously a “Nashville” or a “Memphis” album – certainly not Hanlon’s bid to reinvent himself as a soul singer or a country and western entertainer. There’s a modesty to this record; it carries its origins lightly. The roots music influence is audible, but not intrusive.

Hanlon has established his songwriting voice over a long period, beginning in the 1990s with his Lismore-based band The Simpletons. His initial solo recordings, like the Early Days EP (2000) and his first album, Hello Stranger (2002), were shaped by whimsy: there were songs about Betamax video machines (‘Beta Losers’), bicycle kickstands (‘The Kickstand Song’) and hiccups (‘Hiccups’). Courtney Barnett has been public in her admiration for Hanlon’s work, and his lyric style is clearly an influence upon hers – they share a fondness, which is also sometimes a weakness, for puns and cute details.

Over time, Hanlon’s songs have become more reflective, drawing deeper on the inherent melancholy of his interest in forgotten objects and lost characters. Where Did You Come From? begins with a song called ‘Salvation Army’, narrated by a ghost, or so it seems. “My clothes they all looked good on me / Now they’re owned by the Salvation Army,” Hanlon sings, as creaking noises reverberate in the background. Travelling can concentrate the mind on both transience and permanence, particularly those things – like love, and life itself – that seem solid but are so fragile.

There’s an open-hearted musicality to Where Did You Come From?, so that the album’s patchwork recording process becomes a strength. There’s a bit of country rock (‘The Chattanooga Shoot Shoot’), a bit of folk (‘My Love Is an Ocean Away’) – there’s even a piece of street tap dancing (‘Manhole Cover Tap’). The scale and sheer human variety of America is one narrative focus, but there are songs about Australia that fix a listener’s attention on the vastness of this continent, too. ‘Letter From an Australian Mining Town’, written in western New South Wales and recorded in Nashville, is a long, thoughtful digression on the process of writing itself – the isolated musician in an isolated town. “It hits you, all the miles you travel / Just to find a voice,” sings Hanlon, though this album is less the search for a new musical voice than a skilled consolidation of the gifts that Hanlon already possesses.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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