October 16, 2013

Test Spins: Courtney Barnett, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

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By JAMES RAINIS

As the heroes of indie rock hit the reunion circuit (and The Pixies basically become The Eagles), basement bands across the country have been coming to resemble their classic rock forebears more and more every year. Rather than pulling from the same tired post-punk influences, bands are succumbing to the allure of shimmery guitar tones, extended instrumental solos and rambling song structures. Not since Pavement stopped desperately trying to sound like The Fall has indie rock been more on its Neil Young game.

But what separates cutesy pastiche from legitimate reinvention? Foxygen’s charming enough debut We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic had all the right organ sounds, but lacked a distinct personality (save the killer “You don’t need to be an asshole, you’re not in Brooklyn anymore” line from “No Destruction”) to shield themselves from “retro-revival” designations. All the Dylan and Velvets comparisons in the world do you no good if that’s all anyone is noticing.

Melbourne, Australia’s Courtney Barnett, on the other hand, takes the classicist palette of old school AOR and filters it through her own stark, twisted perspective. On The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, we’re introduced to a songwriter who finds inspiration in botanical anxiety attacks and awkward masturbation materials. Her band, The Courtney Barnetts (yes, actually), plays things fast and loose. The slacker tag on her BandCamp page is acute: The band sounds ragged and weed-addled, like a version of The Band performing “The Night They Drove This Chick Dixie Down to Taco Bell.”

Lead single “Avant Gardener” is the instant classic. Led in by a lazy groove and the squeal of country-fried guitars, its tale of failed pro-activity is chock-full of pointed observations (“Halfway down High Street, Andy looks ambivalent / He’s probably wondering what I’m doing getting in an ambulance”) and deadpan one-liners (“I guess the neighbors must think we run a meth lab / We should amend that”). Free of a real chorus, save some “oohs” and “ahhs,” it highlights Barnett’s singular narrative and internal rhyme schemes.  She has a half-spoken half-sung delivery reminiscent of Lou Reed or Stephen Malkmus, and, when she spits out a line like “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying, ” you feel like she’s earned the chance to be mentioned in that lineage.

The rest of the Double EP — and it’s pretty shocking that something this fully formed is not a bona fide full-length — finds Barnett fleshing out an identity as a refreshingly direct singer, on par with Los Campesinos!’s Gareth David or Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker for her self-deprecating honesty. On the buzzy millennial beat poetry jam “History Eraser,” she revels us with a story about a night out (“We drifted to a party: cool / The people went to arty school”) and her own romantic frustrations (“Just then a song comes on / “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” / The Rolling Stones, oh woe is me / The irony”) over a stomping, Nirvana-biting groove. “Lance Jr.” is the aforementioned masturbation song, drums loping and guitars twanging as Barnett excuses her wanking as a mere sleeping aide rather than an indication of romantic interest.

The deadbeat vibe of A Sea of Split Peas is its bread and butter — see “Scotty Says” for some dead-end desert-town slide guitars — but more melancholic tracks like “Ode to Odetta” and “Anonymous Club” indicate an emotional depth to Barnett’s rampant sarcasm that signals that her matter-of-fact snark is not a façade. Whether she’s detailing her pre-bedtime rituals on “Lance Jr.” or responding to an ex’s complaints on “Don’t Apply Compression Gently” (“I take pieces of myself from everyone around me / I’m not individual enough for you / I replicate the people I admire / but at least I’m not bitter and sad”), she’s candid about everything.

A reliable narrator is one thing. A reliable narrator with the charm and lyrical candor of Courtney Barnett is hard to come by. Seemingly effortless, A Sea of Split Peas is entrancing and a worthwhile trip for anyone who’s aimlessly kicked it with their feet in a kiddie pool while digging some classic rock radio. Never mind that Barnett was “never good at smoking bongs”: her willingness to shirk hospital bills, air out her anxieties and add definite character to a tried and true sound makes her 2013’s undisputed ascendant slacker queen.

James Rainis is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at jrainis@cornellsun.com.