Monday, January 14, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1217: Courtney Barnett

Even though I don’t yet have all the 2018 albums I’m on the hunt for yet, if I wait any longer this list might not have that shiny New Year feel to it. So, without further ado, here are my Top 10 albums of 2018.

UPDATE - on April 19, 2019 I reviewed Lucius' album "Nudes" and realized I'd made a mistake excluding it. I include it below. Apologies to Anna St. Louis, who has now been bumped. I still love you, Anna. 

10. Camp Cope – How to Socialise & Make Friends
9. Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You
8. Cupkakke – Ephorize
7. Caroline Rose – Loner
6. Dessa – Chime
5. Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit
4. Neko Case – Hell-On
3. Lucius - Nudes
2. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
1. St. Vincent – MassEducation

I reserve the right to continue to change this list as I am inspired by new discoveries or fresh listens, but these albums will not steer you wrong.

Here’s a 2018 release that was good, but didn’t make the cut.

Disc 1217 is… Tell Me How You Really Feel
Artist: Courtney Barnett

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? What is the extreme version of the Giant Head cover? The Giant Face cover. Here we are confronted with Courtney Barnett’s Giant Face, as seen through a red filter.

How I Came To Know It: I loved Barnett’s previous release, “Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit” (reviewed back at Disc 905) and bought this album as soon as it came out, hoping for the best.

How It Stacks Up:  “Tell Me How You Really Feel” is OK, but not as good as Barnett’s earlier work. I have three albums by her and this one comes in…third.

Ratings:  3 stars

Courtney Barnett was never a paragon of optimism, but on “Tell Me How You Really Feel” she takes her blend of rock guitar and tortured self-examination to a new level. The songs are solid throughout but after a while it starts to wear you out emotionally.

The usual payback for such a dark journey is some self-discovery or maybe some kernels of wisdom but on “Tell Me How You Really Feel” it isn’t about solutions, it is just about sharing the problem. On her previous record, Barnett explores the same territory but that record comes with a wry smile and some self-deprecating humour. Here the self-deprecation is here, but minus the charm.

The guitar work is exceptional, and while Barnett doesn’t play anything too complicated, she plays with a depth of feeling that lends additional resonance to every song. The opening riff of “Charity” is thick and crunchy, sounding like it fell out of a seventies vinyl collection. Barnett rocks out like this often and when she does she gives the record its best moments.

I also dig the early eighties groove Barnett channels on “Help Your Self”. The song has a schmaltzy sway that had me imagining a bunch of dudes in Miami Vice white suits and loafers swinging their arms and snapping their fingers in the background. The song doesn’t even have cheesy finger snaps, but you feel like it could. When Barnett introduces some discordant but complementary guitar work into the mix she creates a great tension between confidence and false bravado.

When Barnett slips into pure ambient dirge, however, the record loses its energy. At those moments it is wearing, not so much capturing anxiety so much as that raw and bleary feeling when you’ve felt stress for so long you’re just numb. It is music for whatever comes after a tension headache.

There is a lot that can be learned when you’re down in the sadness well, but it is also good to pull some inspiration from the experience. Too often, this record chooses to observe and report on its wallow. It is maddening because there is some great stuff going on and I wanted it to be that much greater. On “Charity” when Barnett sings:

“Meditation just makes you more strung out
I wish you had a guru who told you to let it go
To let it go”

I found myself wishing the same for the record. Stripping some of the weight off of these songs would give it the exquisite balance she manages on “Sometimes I Sit…” “Tell Me How You Really Feel” is still a good record and there are many reasons why it has become a critical darling, but it didn’t speak to me with quite the same level of gravitas that it has for many others.

Best tracks: City Looks Frosty, Charity, Nameless Faceless, Help Your Self

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