Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
There was an article recently in Alt Press about how people tend to stop listening to new music at the age of thirty-three. Being thirty-two, I worried that, more or less, the damage was done and that the only new music I really listen to is whatever I cannot avoid.
The good news, however, is that my wife Jenn is great about listening to new music and she is showing no signs of slowing down in that regard, so hopefully I might luck out. In the car a few weeks back, she said to me “I think you’ll dig this.” As Courtney Barnett’s vocals in “Pedestrian at Best” got going, I realized Jenn was right: I did dig it. I dug it a whole lot. This was just the thing I felt like I had been looking for some time now: rough, great lyrics, not overproduced, not over anything.
There is no beauty to be found directly on the surface of Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett’s debut album: her vocals are deadpan, her guitar playing is straight forward, and her lyrics cover the most mundane of topics. I say “mundane” because that’s the word she uses, including in a previous single, “Avant Gardener,” which you should also listen to and commit to your DNA. In short, her songs are amazing. There is an energy in Barnett’s songs that I have been missing for myself lately in listening to music. I flip endlessly through songs on my phone or Spotify, trying to find some elusive sound that just cannot be found.
But then there is Barnett. Like a whip-crack into my ears, her songs reverberate through my head. I feel my body move a little. I grip the steering wheel a little tighter. In the house, I stop whatever else I am doing and just listen and tap my fingers and my toes. Full disclosure: there is probably some air guitar in there too.
Barnett does not attempt to wow her listener with any of her songwriting skills, but wow she does. Her vocals reveal the true nature of the mundane, that there is an abyss in everyday life that cannot be avoided. Repetition will kill your soul but maybe that is alright. Maybe it is alright that life goes on quietly and we should not poke at it hoping for more.
In fact, whenever we do try for more, life has a way of biting us back. In “Dead Fox,” the mere desire to not eat “shit” ends up giving way to the corporate hegemony of everything around us. Whole Foods and hipsters are great, but we are handing money over to a company as powerful as any other. For Barnett here, “organic” is a sticker saying we have bought into a hype and not done anything to vastly improve ourselves or our environment. “If you can’t see me/I can’t see you,” she sings in the chorus, mimicking the bumper sticker on many trucks. They cannot see us, though, because they are not looking.
In “Depreston,” we are onto the mundane task of looking for a place to live. Since as I write this I am looking for a place to live, perhaps this heightens my feelings on the subject. We are in a place where someone has lived with Barnett, and she is looking at their normal life in their normal Melbourne suburb, imagining how awful it must be. But it is not: It is life regardless, and it is quiet, and there are advantages in the middle of this depressing place. All you need is half a million dollars and you can have whatever you want, so long as it is in this place.
Barnett’s guitar playing relies more on what feels right versus technical skill, something that comes more from the period before she started taking guitar lessons, learning on her own or from siblings or friends. She is not blowing anyone away with fast work or beautiful lines. In many ways, quite the opposite is going on. In “Depreston,” the lick is a simple slide of the pinky, just gently moving up and back down the fingerboard. She uses effects but nothing like you hear on most modern records attempting to cover up some kind of sloppy playing. No, her playing is right out in the open, the effects merely accentuating every song they are used on. She thrashes at times, at times merely plucking away softly. Her dynamic range there is skillful but not overpowering. She learned slowly, she said in an interview, first on her own and then through lessons. But the lessons have merely backed up some innate desire to play rather than turned her into some wunderkind.
Rarely do I jump at anything of late. This is not to say that I have not liked recent books or poems or essays or television shows, but I have not had anything really hit me and drag me in for consumption. Rarely have I listened to an entire new album all the way through, as we seem to have returned to a pre-1965 culture that no longer values the long work but rather the catchy single. This one, though, is perfection. Not the kind of perfection of every note played perfectly or every lyric being perfect, but of a kind of raw, wonderful tone that is struck and sustained throughout.