“Should’ve stayed in bed today / I much prefer the mundane,” Courtney Barnett sings near the end of “Avant Gardener.” Considering the song’s winding and darkly comedic first-person account of an anaphylactic anxiety attack that finds her in an ambulance after attempting some gardening, the line is the understatement of the year. But Barnett’s signature song — with its fantastic “I’m so over it” deadpan delivery — does sort of stand in as the modus operandi of The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas — the Melbourne, Australia songwriter’s self-released 2013 collection of two formerly-issued EPs.
I discovered Barnett at a day party at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right during last fall’s CMJ Music Marathon. Her set was smack-dab in the middle of two bands most, including myself, were there to check out. But by the end of her short set, it was clear Barnett was among my favorite discoveries of the week. I was immediately struck with Barnett’s easy stage presence, quickly rolling through songs (all new to me) that sounded like a mix of slacker alt rock of the ’90s, a grittier version of songwriters like Sharon Van Etten and Torres.
Amid a swirling fury of frayed-wire guitar distortion and a rambling backbeat, Barnett speak-sings fleeting thoughts about failed relationships, boredom, and youthful directionless in exacting detail and shrugging nonchalance. And while her lyrics seem so specifically personal, they’re immediately identifiable.
Case in point: take “Are You Looking After Yourself” — a phone conversation with her parents that we’ve all had at one time or another, where they ask “Are you working hard my darling, we’re so worried… Are you eating? You sound so thin.” Or see her witty setup-punchline in “Avant Gardener”: “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying.”
Whether these detached matter-of-fact observations are real-life tales or adopted persona — or likely, both — it’s this kind of concise, of-the-moment songwriting on the entire album that makes Barnett such a sharp and potent young talent.