Barnett has a gift for turning mundane scenarios into gripping stories—she animates each one with genial asides and jokey tangents, like she’s recounting it for you at the pub later that night. "Avant Gardener" chronicles an ill-fated attempt to get some gardening done in a heat wave, and ends with Barnett having a panic attack in the back of an ambulance ("The paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar/ I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying.") Another standout, "History Eraser", has a similar momentum, but this time Barnett doesn’t even have to get out of bed: It describes a breathless, drunken daydream in which Barnett and the object of her affection joyride on a tractor, catch a riverboat to a casino, and spontaneously sprout straw where their hair used to be—all to the tune of some rollicking, 1960s-inspired folk. It might as well be called "Courtney Barnett’s 115th Dream".
As the more up-beat numbers prove, Barnett’s comically eponymous ("Courtney Barnett and the Courtney Barnetts") backing band complements her style perfectly: they match the frontwomans’ shambling energy without taking the emphasis off her clever lyrics. A few ofSplit Peas’ slower, older songs [“Porcelain”, “Canned Tomatoes (Whole)”] do stall the momentum, but Barnett herself says she didn’t conceive the collection as a cohesive statement. "I don’t want people to misinterpret it as an album," she said in a recent Pitchfork interview, "An album is a thing you take time out and go work on. I can’t wait to make an album. I’ve got a bunch of songs half-ready to go, and I might start on it early next year." Classic slacker rhetoric, maybe, but on this occasionally brilliant (pre-)debut Barnett proves there’s more to the stereotype than meets the eye. When you’ve got an imagination this wild, who even needs a TV?
Better yet is when Barnett lets the instinctive ebb and flow of her music set the mood for her narrative songs, something you sense when she hits the right chords with the bouncing, saloon-y piano on the opener “Out of the Woodwork”. There, Barnett brings out a note of melancholy from the intuitive melody, lifting her typically monochromatic voice to hit the drawn out, lilting refrain of “I am normally pretty forgiving but only if you are.” Likewise, tone and theme line up on the VU-lite silhouette of “Anonymous Club”, as Barnett’s warm, feedback-kissed strum matches its shy romantic scene she depicts, while the understated psych-folk on “Canned Tomatoes (Whole)” creates a tender backdrop for her tentative pick-up lines, ending with her softly imploring, “You should probably call me more.”
Certainly, it wouldn’t hurt Barnett to have a little more of an internal editor, whether it’s to stop her from drifting and meandering musically or to keep her from offering up TMI, especially on “Lance Jr.”, when she sings “I masturbated to the songs you wrote.” But that tends to come with the territory for an artist who works the way Barnett does, one who’s better off going with whatever comes into her mind rather than trying too hard to harness those energies. And in more cases than not, it’s when Courtney Barnett gets caught up in her own head that her music gets stuck in yours.