Courtney Barnett Sings About Boiling Water And It Still Sounds Good

14 January 2016 | 1:59 pm | Ross Clelland

"Barnett boils the water and has a typically candid pondering on existence and other modern-day anxieties, like having to deal with people."

A couple of weeks into 2016, and the new songs started coming in earnest. From the promising, the established, the hopeful of some degree of career resurrection. But for better or sometimes worse, the 20 year cycle – or should that be ‘recycle’ - of musical fashion, style, and trends is still in effect.

It’s almost too easy to play ‘spot the influence’ with the DMA’s. Sure, that’s unashamedly mid-1990s Britpoppery in what they do, right down to the question of ‘How does a guy from Newtown sound like so much like he grew up in Manchester?’, but try and get past that and realise they just construct really good tunes, and deliver them with relish. Too Soon (I Oh You) shambles in, has a melodic yell, with a big chorus then steps back and waits for your deserved applause before you get the chance to argue with your chums as to whether Blur or Oasis were better. The answer to that is, of course, Pulp. 

Andrew Stockdale has always happily doffed his cap to that decade as well. But kinda doubles down another couple of decades on the new Wolfmother track, by throwing in an intro that could have come from a Deep Purple out-take circa about 1971. Victorious (Universal) also just confirms the idea the ‘Mother is a one man band, although Andy’s international reputation from hanging around with Slash among others means he gets to have Brendan O’Brien put the glossy US production polish on this as he’s done for people like Pearl Jam and Springsteen already. It’s all as big as Stockdale’s hair, and will likely be noticed as such. And the chance for classic rock radio stations to play something new. 

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Rock and roll is now - sometimes uncomfortably - middle-aged. Conversely, there’s always going to be kids bringing their energy to hopefully reinvigorate it. But hopefully pushing past an inherent age-ism some artists similarly vintaged are still making vital work. Let’s face it, Bowie was making art of weight and importance literally ‘til the day he died. Bob Mould is hopefully some time away from that yet, but the man who could simply rest on the laurels of just being in heroes-to-many Husker Du and Sugar for starters is still releasing songs as visceral, as thoughtful, as just plain fucking loud as Voices In My Head (Merge). The guitars ring and build upon themselves, while Bob looks in the mirror and sees a very stylish bearded man stare back. Damn, it’s good. He’s still good. Revel in it. 

Again it was a mixed blessing, but the ‘90s also gave us ‘comedy’ shows on Australian telly like Fast Forward and The Late Show. If we had them now, they’d likely lampoon Courtney Barnett through her observations of the seemingly mundane and domestic by having Magda Szubanski donning a fringed wig and Blundstones, and singing about something like cooking two minute noodles. But we don’t have those shows anymore, so Courts tackles the subject herself. Three Packs A Day (Milk!) is another tune from hers and Jen’s cottage industry label’s upcoming sampler, with the added overlap in the Venn Diagram of a suitably wheezing harmonica solo from labelmate Fraser Gorman. Ms Barnett boils the water and has a typically candid pondering on existence and other modern-day anxieties, like having to deal with people. As she does.

The ‘90s also had other little odd throwbacks like rediscovering the sitar. Kula Shaker surprisingly didn’t take theirs to Cashos during their ‘hiatus’. But probably should have. Six years after their last – what, you didn’t notice they were gone? – Infinite Sun (Strangefolk) has all the rattly self-examination and staring at the skies as the campfire crumbles down to embers and the last Orchy bong is passed around, as was ever thus. One downside, no-one thought about throwing that damn sitar into said flames. 

Of the ‘90s, but still more than capable of making music that can disturb (in a good way…), Mogwai delve back a few more decades and head into concept territory by building an album around the cheerful subject matter of development of the original A-bomb and the changes it wrought on the world – Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular, for starters. U-235 (Rock Action) surges and veers away in a quieter manner than many of their long-term enthusiasts might expect, but is still music that can make your spine stiffen and sphincter clench in the manner that great art sometimes can. 

Looking outside his usual world, and being made both curious and uncomfortable in the process, Felix Riebl – he probably best-known as part of Australia’s favourite ethnic BBQ dance party, The Cat Empire – presents Crocodiles (Independent). Based on a travel through East Timor, the song’s feeling of sinking into an almost slightly dizzy tropical delirium that places it somewhere between Apocalypse Now and David Bridie. No, really. 

Aaron Maine in his band guise of Porches seemed one of those just hiply alternative NY guys enough to get on certain radio stations. Be Apart (Domino) is the first offering since signing to the right kind of label to have those hopes for wider acknowledgement and success grow, although the music may have taken a slightly more restrained turn from what went before. It’s not emo, but certainly not happy. The synth lines stretch and slow, a closing-time exhale as they’re telling you that you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. It has a resignation, almost a physical sigh, as the music drains away. It’s rather good.