Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Courtney Barnett

  • The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas [Mom + Pop/Milk!, 2013] **
  • Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. [Mom + Pop, 2015] A
  • Tell Me How You Really Feel [Mom + Pop, 2018] A-
  • Things Take Time, Take Time [Mom + Pop, 2021] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas [Mom + Pop/Milk!, 2013]
So redolent in their way, the EPs' titles, I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, suggest neither the irresistibility of her greatest shoegaze nor her ill-conceived tendency to strum when she can't think of anything charming to say ("Avant Gardener," "History Eraser") **

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. [Mom + Pop, 2015]
I insist that the most striking advance here is musical, as her Melbourne g-b-d rock out where formerly they strummed her weaker material into oblivion. Not like Nirvana or something--they're nowhere near that galvanic. But they pack the kind of drive and focus that convince the listener every song matters to the people who are playing it, with the singer-songwriter's committed vocals the clincher. I'll concede, however, that song quality per se could have inspired this effect, because these don't quit. Take this casual opener from "Dead Fox," which you'd best believe scans: "Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables and I must admit I was a little sceptical at first a little pesticide can't hurt." Triangulates her culturally--soon we learn that she's always found organic kind of pricey. But what I love most is the half-rhymes that half-link the "vegetables"-"sceptical"-"pesticide" polysyllables before she continues an autobiographical reminiscence based on a road trip through cattle country. That's Barnett's m.o. Formally, her songs are confessional, only they describe her material life and conflicted feelings acutely rather than dreamily, so that the songs occur in and are inflected by a deftly rendered physical and social world. "Dead Fox" isn't even a standout. You want one of those, try "Depreston," in which a house-shopping expedition is stopped dead by a Vietnam snapshot the deceased owner has left behind. Say Barnett is Jens Lekman only folk-grunge not pop. Say she's John Prine as a lesbian boho 40 years his junior from the other side of the globe and maybe tracks. Say she's herself. Hope she remains so. A

Tell Me How You Really Feel [Mom + Pop, 2018]
Cheeky title notwithstanding, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. didn't just sit. It was an album where a band powered up at just the moment its singer evolved into a guitarist to reckon with as she came up with the best-observed lyrics of her life. Three years later, what little observation there is peers inward--half the songs sound written in a flat she hasn't left in a week. If anything, the band is sharper. But rather than a singer dynamic enough to match it, we get a dynamic guitarist who also happens to be the sole lyricist and solo singer. So be grateful for the Margaret Atwood lift "I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Men are scared that women will laugh at them / I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Women are scared that men will kill them," especially for sparking the crucial add-on "I hold my keys between my fingers." And for a finale called "Sunday Roast," where someone she likes comes for a visit. A-

Things Take Time, Take Time [Mom + Pop, 2021]
Not to get too esoteric on you, but Barnett reminds me of Perry Como, who crooned exactly 100 hits in pre-rock 'n' roll 1943-1954 and kept going till 1960 and beyond, including a number-two 1955 cover of Gene and Eunice's "Ko Ko Mo" and the number-one 1956 teen-targeted "Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)." Como hosted his long-running TV show in a cardigan, was married to the same woman for 65 years, and died of Alzheimer's complications in 2001, and though as a kid I thought he was boring, I now admire how likable and decent he was. I enjoy the same traits in Barnett even more because unlike Como she never pretends the world is easy, which is certainly one reason that for all her cameos and collabs, this is only her second solo album since 2015's breakthrough Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett's tenuous love life seems unkind only by mishap; her talky, slightly sour pitch suits melodies that don't come easy. Watching the world burn doesn't stop her from noticing trees turn green which doesn't distract her from the ones that are nothing but char. She congratulates one friend on her or his new place and asks another "Are you good? Are you eating?/I'll call you back next week." Is she actually such a mensch? It's impossible to be sure. But she definitely makes it sound that way. A-