Robert Christgau:
Expert Witness

Courtney Barnett / Nellie McKay


Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

(Mom + Pop)

I insist that the most striking advance here is musical, as her Melbourne g-b-d rock out where formerly they strummed her weaker material into oblivion. Not like Nirvana or something — they’re nowhere near that galvanic. But they pack the kind of drive and focus that convince the listener every song matters to the people who are playing it, with the singer-songwriter’s committed vocals the clincher. I’ll concede, however, that song quality per se could have inspired this effect, because these don’t quit. Take this casual opener from “Dead Fox,” which you’d best believe scans: “Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables and I must admit I was a little sceptical at first a little pesticide can’t hurt.” Triangulates her culturally — soon we learn that she’s always found organic kind of pricey. But what I love most is the half-rhymes that half-link the “vegetables”-”sceptical”-”pesticide” polysyllables before she continues an autobiographical reminiscence based on a road trip through cattle country. That’s Barnett’s m.o. Formally, her songs are confessional, only they describe her material life and conflicted feelings acutely rather than dreamily, so that the songs occur in and are inflected by a deftly rendered physical and social world. “Dead Fox” isn’t even a standout. You want one of those, try “Depreston,” in which a house-shopping expedition is stopped dead by a Vietnam snapshot the deceased owner has left behind. Say Barnett is Jens Lekman only folk-grunge not pop. Say she’s John Prine as a lesbian boho 40 years his junior from the other side of the globe and maybe tracks. Say she’s herself. Hope she remains so. A

Nellie McKay: My Weekly Reader

(429)

Once the cabaret upstart was a golden faucet of song, but since she messed up her karma in 2007 by cracking a feminism joke that men didn’t find cute, not to mention understand, the originals have dried up. So as cabaret stalwarts will, she’s turned to Other People’s Material. Having reimagined Doris Day in 2009, she ups the ante and reimagines the ‘60s in 2015. And from the sublime “Sunny Afternoon” and “If I Fell” to the ridiculous “Red Rubber Ball” and “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” from the secret class politics of Alan Price and Moby Grape to the out-there freak politics of Frank Zappa and Jefferson Airplane, she manifests more historical grasp than any psych band yet to show its hand. Songs are so much easier to hold onto than acid visions you can only dream about. A MINUS


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