Album Review: Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Album Reviews
03/24/2015
Jim Beckmann

Regardless of whether you consider the new release by Courtney Barnett her sophomore effort or first official LP, there's no denying it's a terrific album. In fact, if you were a fan of last year's Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, I'm happy to tell you that Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (out tomorrow on Mom+Pop) is everything you hoped it would be.

Okay, that's probably all it takes to send most of her growing legion of fans scurrying off to their favorite record stores to pick it up, especially considering the high anticipation for this album and the very recent buzz around her SXSW appearances last week. But there may be some of you out there who want a little more, who are wondering if the refreshingly clever-confessional approach on A Sea of Split Peas is sustainable or if she's found a way to marry the bedroom pop of her early recordings with the garage-y fury of her live shows. The quick answers: yes and yes.For those less familiar, the young Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett began as a guitarists in a couple of her friends' bands before setting off and releasing a pair of home-recorded EP's on her own label, Milk! Records. Her first EP, I've Got a Friend called Emily Ferris, was very much a bedroom project, demoed by herself and scored for other musicians to play, while on her second EP, How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose, she was a bit more collaborative with her then bandmates and too more time in the studio. Each EP drew acclaim at home, and by the time the collected Double EP came out, the rest of the world was already picking up on her. Though not an "LP" in its genesis, A Sea of Split Peas felt as cohesive as any full-length you can imagine.

But the album's origins weren't the real story... the songs were. Barnett's vivid, tongue twisting narratives demanded attention the way that Pavement and Beck did all those years ago. Unlike with those two, though, her stories tended toward the real, not the surreal. One of her biggest hits from last year, "Avant Gardener", unravels the tale of an allergic reaction. It's an unfortunate day, for sure, but it could be anybody's day. And when she sings "I much prefer the mundane", it's hard not to laugh because even when she's singing about a phone call with her concerned mother ("Are You Looking After Yourself?") her clever way with words paired with her indelible pop hooks make the mundane sensational.

None of this is lost on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. In fact, Barnett claimed back in 2013 that the EPs were "good practice", so that when it came time to produce a proper LP, all lessons were learned. Musically, the album is tight. She'd been touring with her current band (drummer Dave Mudie and bassist Bones Sloane) for nearly a year, and her own guitar skills have grown immensely, often taking equal importance to her vocals. It helps too that guitarist Dan Luscombe (The Drones) has recently joined. Stylistically, the songs range between bouncy pop ("Aqua Profunda!"), raw grunge ("Pedestrian at Best"), wistful twang ("Depreston") and sprawling psychedelia ("Kim's Caravan"). And this is where I've finally discovered a flaw in the "Double EP" - it's too cohesive. Sometimes I Sit and Think shows an artist who has thought about the entire listening experience of an album, with all its peaks and valleys, sprints and delays.

Album openener, the punchy "Elevator Operator", makes for an easy invitation. It's a third person narrative, one you might not immediately project on Courtney, but might wear yourself: A "mundane" experience (young man frustrated at work) leads to an adventurous one (rushes away from his computer) and ultimately to an interaction of misunderstood motives (is assumed to attempt suicide by the song's titular character). In Barnett's hands, a potentially grave subject is turned airy and free. Our protagonist just wants a life without bullshit or routine, and that can be hard for others to understand. And it presents the crux of the album. The mundane might be an effective modus operandi, and at times can seem quite appealing, but it but it makes for a boring life.

"Pedestrian at Best" both supports and complicates the idea. An early working title for the song was "Pedestal" for obvious reasons. The trappings of fame can make one predictable, controllable, and she wants nothing to do with any of it. ("Put me on a pedestal / I'll only disappoint you") It's both willful and inevitable. And it's also her most aggressive song, fully incapsulating the energy she's previously projected from the stage. While the benefits between going out and staying home are less than certain for Courtney in the lively "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go To The Party", it's pretty clear that in "Depreston", the "the Californian bungalow in a cul-de-sac" just isn't for her.

It's also clear which side of mundane Courtney Barnett ultimately resides. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is adventurous listening. The album's two lengthiest songs, "Small Poppies" and "Kim's Caravan", brew into head-rushing guitar jams unlike anything on the previous EPs, yet even the more conventional ones, by Barnett's standards at least, add additional layers of instrumental complexity and, like all of her songs, sink hooks deep in our everyday mouths and pull us along into the sublime.

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is out tomorrow on Mom+Pop. Buy it and make the rest of your record collection seem mundane.

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