Ludlow Studios was packed to the brim with people for the private one-night only event to celebrate and ogle Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett’s art work. The crowd included everyone from stylish hip kids furtively scanning the room for Barnett’s messy brown mane to appear somewhere in the crowd, loafers who weren’t sure exactly what all the hoopla and video cameras were all about but knew for certain there were infinite free mezcal cocktails to be guzzled, and the nearing-the-top-of-the-hills sponging around to see what the kids are into these days. I’m not old, but this event made me feel old, particularly because up until I heard word of this event, I had no idea who Courtney Barnett was.
Making my way around the room, I found heavy flash photographs of shower heads as well as snippets of Barnett’s lyrics printed on postcards. A few had been blown up to fine art proportions. There were 20-edition prints of a variety of chairs: various grayscale cousins of the line-drawn wicker chair gracing the cover of Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. The seaters are complete with clever little isms scratched out in messy, but somehow still attractive handwriting, presumably Barnett’s own: “just a classic old wooden chair,” and “Dads old office chair (bad perspective) [sic]” and “strange wooden chair that nobody sits on.”
What’s with this chair thing? Is it just some vacant Kinfolk crap that would look good in a shabby chic kitchen? Or does the chair, as a place of isolation, contemplation, and sometimes even diligence indicate something deeper for Barnett?
Australian bands are exporting a lot of great stuff from the World’s Biggest Island– jk that’s Greenland– but for real, check out Gooch Palms and Ausmuteants. Some of the best punk bands around call Australia home.
But Courtney Barnett isn’t exactly punk or even underground. Still, I’d never heard her music and knowing absolutely nothing about her, I decided to do some light research before this thing, a little journalistic trick I like to call “googling around” before I could feel good about drinking this nice looking girl’s free drinks. Three, maybe four music videos, live sets, and several articles later, and I felt maybe like I deserved to indulge. But I also started to feel strangely guilty. This isn’t music I’m supposed to like. My general rule is that if it’s Rolling Stone it probably has something to do with Bono or Mumford & Sons and I’m not going to like it. If it’s not hip hop and has mainstream appeal, I’m not going to like it. And finally, if it crosses the line into “cute” territory, I’m not going to like it.
But somehow, listening to Barnett’s tracks, I found I was tapping my foot. Then a war began within me. I could either sink into shame and denial, pretending as if I didn’t find Courtney Barnett and The Courtney Barnetts’ tunes charming and catchy, or I could ready myself for embarrassment and attempt to articulate why this music is OK and also why it’s not OK. But also, how messed up it is that my knee-jerk reaction is to say: No, not OK.
Barnett’s songs sound nice enough. Overall it’s straightforward rock, but there’s just the tiniest psych edge to the guitars and the sound is ruled by a garage sensibility: feedback, simple loop guitar riffs, crackling bass, all underneath a charming, deep, even raspy accented voice talk-singing lyrics that put her somewhere between Sheryl Crow, The Kills, and Ty Segall.
Maybe I saw the Amy Winehouse documentary too recently, but Barnett’s music feels like a partial return to the sound of the just-above-ground British indie rock scene of the early aughts (The Kills, Babyshambles, The Libertines) and Detroit garage rock from the same time (The White Stripes). Though Barnett does it with much less grit, grunge, and presumably fewer drugs. (The series of “exclusive studio photos” taken by Tajette O’Halloran depicts PG-13 band antics: beer drinking, cigarette smoking, beards that aren’t exactly tame, but are far from unkempt.)
It’s all Zooey Deschanel– she’s quirky! she’s not perfect!– meets Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, minus the black, the motorcycles, and the sunglasses. Barnett’s far from being pop star sleek in any sense. She looks human and acknowledges her flaws, even sings loudly about her lack of self-confidence, but not to the point where it’s like, Wow, get this girl some help.
But Barnett isn’t exactly soft, either. The stuff she sings about embodies the kind of quarter-life crisis disillusionment and romantic apathy that all us superfluous Millennials are feeling these days. Stuff matters, but then again it doesn’t and we shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about responsibilities because doing something like that would transport us officially to elderly irrelevance. So complain, but “whatever” it aside.
Barnett’s frustrated, but she’s not mad. Her lyrics aren’t heart-wrenching, instead they walk a thin line between angsty and obstinate. And she doesn’t go overboard on the irony — you can actually believe what she says. And that last bit is exactly how she’s roped me in. I don’t doubt what she’s saying, and mostly her lyrics transcend cliche so there’s no reason to be suspicious. And hey, I like what she says — as a not-pop-star myself, I can identify.
But Barnett manages to balance between too cool and too hotheaded, which is either a super-human trait or easy as hell depending on who you are. Just listen to “Pedestrian at Best,” when she breathlessly belts out:
“I wanna wash out my head with turpentine, cyanide, I dislike this internal diatribe when I try to catch your eye, I hate seeing you cry in the kitchen, I don’t know why it affects me like this when you’re not even mine to consider, Erroneous, harmonious, I’m hardly sanctimonious, Dirty clothes, I suppose we all outgrow ourselves.”
Recently waves of post-punk, cold wave, goth, and even no wave have been streaming through the music zeitgeist, touching a little bit of everything regardless of genre (even if it’s only an aesthetic nod). See: Rihanna’s new video, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” Kanye West’s YEEZUS, Pharmakon, the return of Swans. Everything Sacred Bones puts out. The list goes on.
The darkness hasn’t departed completely, but a dryer, folky sensibility seems to be moving in, see: Father John Misty’s I Love You Honeybear, Kanye’s ditty with Paul McCartney (he’s really a great thermometer for what’s now), and now, Courtney Barnett. I mean, can you think of anything less gloomy than Courtney Barnett? I can’t imagine this girl wearing all black and hiding behind a stack of modular synths, head bent downward and the rest of her obscured by complete darkness. But somehow, she maintains the genre’s well-worn attitude, the post-whatever sensibility, the opposition to naiveté.
So really, Barnett’s playing both sides of that whole thing with the chairs I mentioned earlier, but what she’s doing is even more pronounced in those blurry photos of various shower heads. Heavy flash and washed out or saturated colors make for a throwback vibe, but curiously to a time that never existed, when those Instagram filters weren’t Instagram filters at all but actual film camera filters (see: everything Kinfolk).
There’s also an obsession with banality here (which is so folk, right?) and a distinct lack of humans (wait, which isn’t very folk at all), both of which are maybe Barnett’s attempts to distance herself from the world of feelings that occupies her songwriting.
“Do you think those are from the hotels she’s stayed in?” one woman asked me. “I dunno,” I said. “Probably.”
But this was a strange question, really, because why would it matter if these were taken in various hotels while Barnett was on tour? The point is that, as shower heads, they don’t mean much. They aren’t beautiful shower heads, or interesting shower heads, or even eccentric shower heads. And even if they were any of those things, they’d still be fucking shower heads.
The only things that meant much were the inscriptions of Barnett’s lyrics on the backsides of the postcards, some of which were distanced, ironic, even nihilistic (“Drank till I was sinking, Sank till I was thinking, that I’m thankful for this view”) while more of them were the opposite. And these lyrics actually negate her attempt at being cool and say a lot about where Barnett’s head is at right now. “I’m sorry for all of my insecurities but it’s just part of me,” “You say you’ll sleep when you’re dead, I’m scared I’ll die in my sleep,” “I don’t know quite who I am but MAN am I trying…”