Aural Impressions: Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney Barnett is one of those musical acts that basically dropped on me from heaven one day.  A simple coincidence led to an interest piqued, and one album listen later, and I was hooked.  Just two years ago, I sat outside enjoying the late spring sun to her optimstic, laid-back, yet energetic stylings and I haven’t let that feeling go since.  Hell, the catchy, escalating narrative of “Avant Gardener,” from her second EP, inspired me to get out of the house and do yard work.   As soon as she announced a show in town last year, I didn’t think twice about snagging tickets, even if they were fairly expensive.  I caught Courtney Barnett in Oakland with Kurt Vile and the Sea Lice in the fall, and then again in San Francisco earlier this month in the first real show of her latest tour.  To begin this show, she played through the entirety of her newest album, Tell Me How You Really Feel.  Ironically, I couldn’t really get a feel for the album live, as the sound at stage front was somewhat difficult to make out — the venue had opened only a day earlier and I don’t think the room was quite tuned yet.  However, I recall very much liking several of the new songs, especially the closing tracks of the record.  Whether or not my live impressions hold up will be determined — right now:

  1. Hopefulessness:  Detuned and grim, this is a dark start for a second record.  I adore the guitar riff though — it’s grungy and resonant.  A stark contrast to the jounce of “Elevator Operator,” this song is mute, claustrophobic, and trance-inducing, with an extremely slow crescendo adding stiff percussion and transient production effects like synth pads and, ultimately screeching feedback.  A spacey guitar solo struggles to stand out in the cacophony by the end, but that only adds to the tight, closed-off feeling we started with.  And I’m pretty sure that’s a tea-kettle whistling there at the end.  This is a great opener for what aims to be a fairly different album than we’ve heard from Courtney before.
  2. City Looks Pretty:  A burst of energy after a slow climb, we’re back in that Sometimes I Sit… area of liveliness.  The song pushes forward on the back of a steady guitar-drum mix, sprinkled with blasts of distorted guitar and climbing bass riffs.  The chorus is so uplifting musically that I can see the sun coming out in my mind’s eye.  At the midpoint, we take an abrupt turn into 3/4 time at half speed, with the drum instrumentation being reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and playing alongside, the same sort of bluesy clean guitar riffs and solos that had been prominently featured on Courtney’s first album.  This song is pretty fantastic as is, but honestly it could have been longer.  That second half could have lingered for a few minutes more and I would have loved it.
  3. Charity:  There’s something supremely nostalgic buried in that syncopated chord progression, whilst I find that pre-chorus riff screaming of a Sleater-Kinney-style polyphonic-guitar riot grrrl sound, if only for a moment.  Courtney’s singing is a bit subdued given how lively and bright the music is, but that’s kind of her thing, isn’t it?  Musically, it’s fairly simple, although the chords take a few neat unexpected twists and turns throughout the boilerplate sequences, specifically during the choruses; those changes create incredibly satisfying transition points between stanzas and verses.  This might be my early favorite for the album; I can see myself putting this on repeat for a while.
  4. Need A Little Time:  With a slowly strummed minor-key guitar and little to no flourishes in production, this feels a little bit enervating in the wake of the last few rockers.  It reminds me a bit of the feel of the first EP and its stripped-down pieces, though; it’s rough around the edges, for better or worse.  Twice during this plodding affair, we’re treating to rockin’ solos, the first one shattering the first half din, whilst the second, a repetition at a lower octave, finishes off the song suddenly.  While okay, this song doesn’t really have a hook that would bring me back to it over and over, unfortunately.
  5. Nameless, Faceless The opening single from the record, this was a bit of a different sound to bring us into this new era.  A crunchy, dissonantly descending guitar riff leads into a lightly upbeat ballad with sarcastic lyrics pointedly directed at every angry young man who chooses to take out their frustrations on women.  The chorus features vocals sunken deep into the mix, which get raspier and more strained as the choruses repeat, especially when performed live.  It’s a rather simple, repetitive song that harkens back to that early ’90s grunge sound that’s been flirted with a few times so far on this album.  It’s not a bad lead-off single, but it’s not my favorite either.  It does have the propensity to get stuck in my head though, so it’s got that going for it.
  6. I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch:  As the title implies, this short interlude is ferocious.  It’s noisy and conflicted, flipping between crashing chords, slimy guitars, and disjointed solos.  Basically, the twisted sequel to “Pedestrian at Best,” or if Courtney Barnett did a less energetic interpretation of Sleater-Kinney’s “Surface Envy.”  A killer track, for sure.
  7. Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack of Self Confidence:  Now this sounds like it came straight from her early works — the staccato dual chord that kicks it off, echoing the beginning of her song “David,” is all it takes for me to put myself back in that space.  The upbeat jumpy guitar through the verses is basically the sound of her debut album, so this song is an updated remix of the general Courtney Barnett essence.  Given the title, I wonder if that was a conscious choice.  Joining Courtney on this track are Kim Deal from the Pixies and her sister Kelley, providing layered backing vocals through the mantric choruses.   This one is also short, but sweet.  I like it.
  8. Help Your Self:  Groovy!  Solo drums lead off here, into a thick, undulating, multi-tracked guitar and bass riff.  Is that a cowbell I hear?  Vocals are clean and upfront in the mix.  The lead guitar, as has been common all record, treads into Carrie Brownstein territory once again.  Toward the end, it bursts into a shrieking, fuzzy solo, featuring the kind of clashing scales that are common on The Woods, while also reminding me a bit of latter-day Muse, if that’s possible.
  9. Walkin’ On Eggshells:  As I mentioned up top, this begins the set of two songs that I recall most liking at the show.  More than any other on the record, this captures the feel of her first EPs.  Backing vocals from the guys in the band make their first noticeable appearance on this album, along with a piano in accompaniment.  There’s a slight twang  in her guitar, creating an intentionally unpolished feeling.  Drums on the quarters during the chorus are classic Courtney.  I was right to have liked this song live — it’s chill, lovely, and an easy favorite.
  10. Sunday Roast:  According to Courtney at the show, she wrote this song when she was very young.  It, like the preceding track, is chill, but in an extremely polished, nebulous way.  The wide, floating reverb, heavy bass, and tom-laden drums immediately bring The National to mind; it’s melancholic with purpose.  I find myself liking the first half mainly because of my affinity for The National, but Courtney’s vocals too excel in this environment — this just makes me want the two to collaborate now.  As the second chorus comes in, the foggy shroud is blown wide open.  In its place are an extremely optimistic verse and happy guitars.  It’s a decently strong conclusion, even if I far preferred the first half of the track, and also considering that it fades out in the end.  As a whole, it’s solid.

It didn’t really take a lot for this new album to grow on me.  I had gone in with lowered expectations — I caught some mixed reviews before release, and the first three songs put out didn’t necessarily grab me the right way.  That said, the remaining tracks that fill out the album are pretty wonderful.  It works much better as a whole, and boy, if I could go back in time and see her again, having heard the album first, I would have appreciated it way the hell more.  What’s not so good is okay, and what’s good is great — despite some extra melancholy and ferocity compared to previous records, there’s still a ton of sunny vibes here to get me through the summer.

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