Courtney Barnett’s stateside debut smashes two EP’s into one release.
House Anxiety / Marathon Artists, 2013
7.7 / 10
Courtney Barnett’s newest release might look like an album, but it’s not quite the formal debut that fans may be expecting. In fact, she doesn’t even want you to think it’s a full-length album. Instead, as its name suggests, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas is two standalone EPs smashed together as one release. Last year, the Melbourne-based singer/songwriter released her first EP I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris, and this 6-song work is tacked onto the end of The Double EP. The first six songs from The Double EP come from a separate EP (How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose), released in October 2013. If you’re playing along at home, half of The Double EP is old material, and the other half is brand new. Barnett doesn’t want us to see this as an overarching album, so let’s look at these two halves independently, shall we?
How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose (the first six tracks on this release) is pretty great. It’s a much more open EP, with plenty of room for Barnett to try out new things with her music and her storytelling. If Sharon Van Etten had a slightly more upbeat kid sister, you might expect her to write songs that would sound like “Anonymous Club” or “Out of the Woodwork”. The best moments on this EP are those that take the biggest risk. “Avant Gardener” stands as a highlight — a song that winds up drawing parallels between gardening and Pulp Fiction. The lyrics come across as surreal, stream-of-conscious, not unlike one of Atlas Sound’s more accomplished tracks. Aside from the narrative, Barnett lets her rhythm section carry the song, and it’s a nice change-up from her normal guitar-centric arrangements; the looser structure only serves to enhance Barnett’s vocals and lyrics.
There’s good news and bad news with the latter six tracks comprising I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris. The bad news is that these songs just aren’t as strong or memorable as those on the first half of The Double EP The good news is that these songs are older, and juxtaposed directly with the first half of this release, shows a pretty dramatic increase her Barnett’s songwriting ability. But this isn’t to say that I’ve Got A Friend… is bad, it’s just diminished in comparison. Many of the songs have a similar lo-fi sound, making use of a loose rhythm section and 4-chord progression. Perhaps most striking is the opening track, “Lance Jr.”1 The song opens with the line “I masturbated to the songs you wrote.” Barnett gives it a clear, serious delivery, and there’s a moment where the listener will wonder exactly where this story is going: is she joking? Is she trying to be vulgar? It turns out, the answer is neither.
Courtney Barnett’s informal debut sets the tone just right for her as an artist. She’s not the kind of songwriter that’s going to make big, explosive statements. Instead, The Double EP is a disjointed, scattershot record at times, but the lack of cohesion meets her own songwriting style. Whether she’s singing about masturbation, the pleasures and dangers of gardening, or drug use, Barnett is always able to tell a story that’s shocking, interesting, and above all else, honest. It’s hard to fault this release on its lack of cohesion, and it virtually starts and stops twice at the beginning and end of each standalone EP, but it works surprisingly well. The purpose of The Double EP is to drum up attention and hype for Barnett, who so far has only really made a name for herself in Australia. Whether or not Barnett will be able to sustain her charm and gift for songwriting over a full-length record may be a matter for another day, but for now, she’s a strong musician that seems to be increasing with her experience. Get excited.
1. I’ve probably spent too much time thinking about this, but I’m guessing that the name for “Lance Jr.” is a reference to the Dandy Warhols’ song “Retarded.” The song “Retarded” appears on the band’s B-sides collection, Come On Feel The Dandy Warhols, and it also appears as a reprise called “Lance”. Barnett’s “Lance Jr.” features many similarities to “Lance” in regards to chord progression, tempo, and vocal delivery.