“Apparently, I screamed a lot as a child and they thought I may be a singer,” recalls indie-rock artist Courtney Barnett. The 33-year-old Aussie songwriter sat in the breathtaking Royal Exhibition Building, a spacious, grand landmark in Melbourne and the stately setting for “From Where I’m Standing,” her first performance since January.
With the blasé demeanor the likes of a tailor-made rockstar, Barnett emanated a sort of lukewarm charm. She was joined by a small band: bassist Bones Sloane, cellist Lucy Waldron and Dave Mudie on the drums. She got the show started with a diffused version of “City Looks Pretty,” in a brooding flair. She made headway at the end as the percussion found a more solid ground; the lyrics seemed to step away from a pool of skepticism as Barnett declared, in her sing-speak style, “I’ll never be what you need.”
Sloane provided backing vocals on a few of the tracks, including “Walkin’ on Eggshells.” The song took people on a cruise along the coast, with a Stones-esque rock ‘n’ roll rhythm and languid-sounding drums. Similar in its wistfulness was a new song with an upbeat indie rock melody, titled, “Write A List of Things to Look Forward To.” The sound built on itself, starting with ticking drums, then adding in a concrete bassline. As the song climaxed, the cello took over, providing the kind of sonic magic that envelopes its listener. “Sit beside me/ Watch the world burn/ We’ll never learn we don’t deserve nice things,” Barnett drawled, a flash of a smirk upon her expression.
Predictably, “Avant Gardener” made an appearance as the indie-rocker’s best hit. She switched guitars for “Let It Go,” her fingers worked fluidly as keys against the strings, creating a clean melody around a tranquil, repetitive bassline. The notes didn’t align directly with her off-beat lyrical melody; rather, the guitar embellished a spoken-word style of singing.
The debut of “Here’s The Thing” indicated a slight turn in Barnett’s sound. It’s a slow-burn song, melodic and pensive. It reads as a letter, rather than a word-vomit monologue. In a nasally, longing tone, Barnett cooed, “I don’t know what to do/ Gonna write this letter to you that I’ll never send.” The singer’s vocals were dry, even apathetic, throughout her cover of Arthur Russell’s “I Never Get Lonesome.” The performance was a solo act until the bridge, when Waldron entered with the cello and added a missing, melancholic element—the kind of sadness that creeps in when we try desperately to ignore it.
“Depreston” doesn’t sell the city of Preston well, but Barnett did a solid job of creating the numbed experience of life in a boring suburb, even the bridge repeats itself endlessly over a light tapping sound. Barnett sang in an open, longing voice on the chorus of “I Need A Little Time.” The song leads to a halting end, right after a heavily distorted electric outro with a nostalgic grunge touch.
As a musician, Barnett isn’t afraid to make mistakes. She re-started the guitar intro for a Silver Jews cover of “We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing” before landing it just right. An electrifying, tingling riff with a groovy twist, it’s a sound most wouldn’t complain about feeling twice. It felt like her own song, as she finessed the guitar and turned up her voice at the end of each line; every lyric felt as though it might go on endlessly with a bridge to another thought. “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight,” another new song, was bouncy, breezy and telling of the artist’s it-is-what-it-is manner. All of this was fused with a country-western sound, as Barnett boasted with a cunning nerve, “If lovin you’s a crime/ Give me those front-page headlines.”
Setting “Sunday Roast” as the final track of the set felt intentional. “Keep on keeping on, and know you’re not alone,” Barnett sang directly to the eyes of her audience over a feel-good melody. “I know your stories but I’ll listen again and again.” There was an air of reassurance in the singer-songwriter’s tone, casting her usual over-analytical spirit aside. The cello brought an elongated effect to the clean, electric notes of the guitar, travelling into a steady drum fadeout as the setting darkened.
A lot has changed this year, and yet Barnett and her music remain resolute. Perhaps it’s the indie-rocker’s wry, relatable lyricism; maybe it’s the way she suddenly emerged as the modern Bob Dylan we didn’t know we needed, with her overthought songwriting and speak-sing vocals. Whatever conspired in the cosmos to bring her to the here-and-now, Courtney Barnett is the most necessary songwriter in an overly-critical, desensitized generation of music-lovers.
Photo Credit: Kayln Oyer