John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Courtney Barnett Is a Killer

She’s a triple talent and “Pedestrian At Best” proves it.

By - Jun 20th, 2017 04:08 pm
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Courtney Barnett. Photo by Danny Clinch.

Courtney Barnett. Photo by Danny Clinch.

Hey, guess what? I like someone who’s alive. She’s even on the charts. Her name is Courtney Barnett and she sounds to me like someone who could hold her own in a room with Joe Strummer or Joey Ramone. Add The Violent Femmes to that list, because she shares some of their sauciness and off-balance musical sensibility. She also sing/talks in a truly arresting manner, almost like she’s behind your back muttering about some recent slight. Take it from the guy who never played it or dove head first into the mosh pit — that is Punk Rock!

It’s complicated, me and Punk. When music gets loud and cantankerous, I admire the latter as I run screaming for the door with my ears covered. I come by this honestly, as I’ve found myself in the middle of quite a few sonic storms and now my tinnitus is audible over everything but jet planes. But cantankerous I can relate to — I’ve been accused and convicted of it many times. It’s an honorable stance, a sane response to world gone mad. It’s something people of all ages can share, and even though Punk Rock is aimed at teens and twen-teens playing out the adolescent string, when it has just the right snotty humor, I love it.

The DIY factor does make a lot of it harder to like. I have to really love what you’re saying if you can’t sing. Craftsmanship is important, though not an end unto itself Take Michael Bolton, please. Sneaky is better. Courtney Barnett, casually tossing the lyrics to “Pedestrian At Best” sounds like they came to her seconds before she sang them. But there is a lot of craft in what she does. Flowing like a rapper and packed with internal rhyme, she spits this mouthful of delicious venom at her target:

I love you, I hate you, I’m on the fence, it all depends
Whether I’m up or down, I’m on the mend, transcending all reality
I like you, despise you, admire you
What are we gonna do when everything all falls through?
I must confess, I’ve made a mess of what should be a small success
But I digress, at least I’ve tried my very best, I guess
This, that, the other, why even bother?
It won’t be with me on my deathbed, but I’ll still be in your head

Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you
Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey
I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny

My internal monologue is saturated analog
It’s scratched and drifting, I’ve become attached to the idea
It’s all a shifting dream, bittersweet philosophy
I’ve got no idea how I even got here
I’m resentful, I’m having an existential time crisis
Want bliss, daylight savings won’t fix this mess
Under-worked and over-sexed, I must express my disinterest
The rats are back inside my head, what would Freud have said?

Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you
Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey
I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny

I wanna wash out my head with turpentine, cyanide
I dislike this internal diatribe when I try to catch your eye
I hate seeing you cry in the kitchen
I don’t know why it affects me like this
When you’re not even mine to consider
Erroneous, harmonious, I’m hardly sanctimonious
Dirty clothes, I suppose we all outgrow ourselves
I’m a fake, I’m a phoney, I’m awake, I’m alone
I’m homely, I’m a Scorpio
Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you
Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey
I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny

© Courtney Barnett

Beck’s breakthrough hit, “Loser,” was a similar stream of consciousness. Both are daring and funny. Daring because the performer has to memorize every word of their long rant and then deliver it smoothly. Funny because she says things like, “I won’t even be with me on my deathbed” and “What would Freud have said?” It’s dazzling and literary, yet free of pretense and the aspirational need you sense from artists who want to be an “artiste.” Courtney’s an entertainer through and through, the proof is in this amusing video. She’s the painted clown, crying inside and out, looking for the same thing Rodney Dangerfield was. I especially like the go kart section.

How do you get to Australia, anyway? I think I’d like it there. They seem to get so many things right. Doesn’t it seem like a lot of countries have taken our best ideas and made them better? Maybe we’re the ones who are upside down.

I taught a different song of hers to one of my students a while back. It was a video of a live solo performance at a radio show. You could see what a solid, no BS guitar player she was. Not a dabbler at all. Her performance on Saturday Night Live was charming and confirmed my impression. She’s leading a tight band down a treacherous path. She sings, writes and plays and does it all very well. That’s a killer combination. If she keeps it up she may wind up the target for the kind of scorn Strummer and The Clash had thrown at them when they revealed what a solid and versatile band they were. Fans who confuse entry level skills with authenticity force passionate young bands to make a tough choice after the first flush of success. Improve and risk losing that following, or bash away in the same old way.

The Clash moved on and made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and still managed to keep a lot of their original fans. In another 25 years or so, Courtney Barnett will be eligible. I hope she makes it.

2 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Courtney Barnett Is a Killer”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Thanks for bring Courtney Barnett’s work to my attention (didn’t know about her). Despite being punk, the lyrics above respresent a lot of the contradictory feelings that people have in relationships, so she’s definitely hit the universal element, too.

  2. George says:

    Dont get the idea she is punk. That song fits the genre but overall her work is far from it. She isnt rock or top 40 either. Ive seen her live three times so far and you cannot put a label on her music. She puts on a show that makes you want to dance and sway, and you leave wishing there was a show the next night. You end up listening to her albums on the drive home, anticipating her next stop in your city. I hope she can keep it up. Meanwhile i have tickets already for her tour with Kurt Vile, whom she did an album with due out soon

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