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The kind of music Courtney Barnett makes brings to mind the funny, pithy observational storytelling style that the late Kirsty McColl was so good at. Elements of this were also heard again in mid-nineties Brit-pop, at least lyrically, with the likes of Sleeper, Echobelly and ‘Park Life’-era Blur containing sharply anecdotal stories of class (most of them middle but pretending otherwise) and haircuts with ironic detachment.
Kate Nash briefly resurrected this style in 2007 with ‘Foundations’. Self-deprecating and cynical, it seemed as though the Brits were indeed the best-placed to narrate this navel-gazing and smart-arse lefty pop.
Courtney Barnett is from Melbourne though, and her accent is clearly determined throughout Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit – and for the best part she sounds nothing like Kate Nash or Brit-Pop.
Although officially her debut, Barnett already had an album’s worth of material with the combined forces of her two EPs on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Her style remains the same here but is pulled tighter into focus with a tweak in quality control that renders the overall sound superior in the details without ever detracting from the star of the album: the songs and the singer.
‘Elevator Operator’ hits the ground running with a common enough tale of office work monotony and suffocation, with the protagonist only ever wanting to be an elevator operator. Its multi-choruses and easy guitars make the song both dynamic and sympathetic. ‘Pedestrian at Best’ has Barnett speak-singing a stream of consciousness.
‘Erroneous harmonious/I’m hardly sanctimonious/Dirty clothes I suppose we all outgrow ourselves/I’m a fake I’m a phoney I’m awake I’m alone I’m homely I’m a Scorpio’
Maybe the best thing about it, and there are several, is that there doesn’t seem to be a chorus, with Barnett’s songwriting tricking you initially. However, if you wait, it’s one of the best you’ll have heard in a while.
‘Depreston’, which is possibly the strongest song here even though it’s hard to only single out one, is a gently guitar-strummed narration concerning a maybe personal experience of Barnett’s house-hunting in a Melbourne suburb. It reinforces the importance of environment to those sensitive to how 2 o’clock in the afternoon bears little resemblance to 4pm. Barnett manages to somehow convey lightness and melancholy all in one, and it’s testament to her great abilities of expressing tiny, subtle shifts in mood and emotion.
‘Dead Fox’, ‘Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party’ and ‘Debbie Downer’ are all full-throttle musically with easy but alarmingly robust choruses that will not leave you in a hurry, not that you would want them to.
It’s interesting that there are few songs here that are explicitly concerned with relationships. Barnett’s partner is fellow musician Jen Cloher, but neither her sexual orientation or personal endeavours are overtly analysed or revealed here.
On the short and sharp ‘Aqua Profunda!’, which sounds almost exactly as though it should have been an Elastica song from 1995, she disastrously flirts with an athletic swimmer which doesn’t end with a kiss or even a look.
‘I tried my very best to impress you, held my breath longer than I normally do, I was getting dizzy, my hair was wet and frizzy’
The mood is more sullen and introspective on the 7-minute-a-piece ‘Small Poppies’ and ‘Kim’s Caravan’, with the latter erupting into an epic and blistering guitar-dueling bridge before Barnett eventually resurfacing in the final 90 seconds. These two songs, more episodic and less immediate than the other material here and showcasing Barnett’s brilliant band mates abilities, bravely counter-balance the remainder of the album’s easy-going and accessible manifesto.
Never twee or snide but consistently engaging and sharp, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit with its focus on the sometimes small, sometimes profound but always relatable is a remarkably well written and performed album and will be one of 2015’s best.