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Album review: Courtney Barnett shakes off the slacker shackles on her new record

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Courtney Barnett's a rock traditionalist, really. The Australian singer and guitarist could've sprouted up in just about any era after about 1968 and seemed pretty of the moment. The thing about her is, she writes about the mundanity of the human experience in a way that could resonate with anyone in any time. And she plays it organic, with guitars, drums and bass leading the charge. Nothing really dates her music — even her references to cars and phones could've been in a song 50 years ago.

But on her new record, "Tell Me How You Really Feel," her songs are also of the moment in a number of ways. "I wanna walk through the park in the dark," she sings on "Nameless, Faceless" in her patented sleepy-voiced way. "Men are scared that women will laugh at them / women are scared that men will kill them." Not that the issue of men as predators is anything new, but her decision to have a set of lyrics like that serve as the song's chorus is. "I hold my keys between my fingers," she later sings.

In a time when the unacceptable behavior of so many bad men has come to light in a way it hasn't, before, it seems like Barnett is — in her low-key, inimitable way — using her music to make deeper statements here and there. Before, it was all slackerdom, half-jokes and self-effacement. This is all still quite present on "Tell Me," but there's an undercurrent there, one where Barnett is airing some grievances. It's the kind of stuff that riot grrrls once thrashed and wailed about, but Barnett — who last year released a collaborative album with Kurt Vile, the only musician who sounds less well-rested than she — is taking the subtle approach.

She gets right down to business on slow-burn opener "Hopefulessness." "You know what they say / no one's born to hate / we learn it somewhere along the way," she sings, over a guitar riff that sounds like telephone wires brushing against a tree in a mild wind. It's a lyric that doesn't go much further than that, but it's clear that she's got injustice on the brain in some way. After a few minutes, a sonic squall arrives, Barnett repeats the "no one's born to hate" line and adds "I'm getting louder, now / I'm getting louder, now." Just as she hits the last "now," her band blasts off, sounding not a million miles off from Sonic Youth in one of their grumpier, dramatic moments. It's an effective song, one that will surely go over like gangbusters in a live setting.

But then, it's back to the pop-rock that she has made her stock in trade. It's a bit of a bait-and-switch scenario after the moodiness of the first track, but anyone with a familiarity with Barnett's music will surely be fine with the switch to poppier fare. "City Looks Pretty" gets jangly and melodic; "Charity" is buzzy and bouncy with a killer chorus ("You must be having so much fun / everything's amazing") that mocks sunshiners who don't tell the truth about having ups and downs in their lives; and the brilliantly-titled "Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence" is full of zingers.

That song is where the album's title comes from — after listening to the record a bit, it seems like both the passive-aggressive statement that people who can't deal with feelings use as well as a statement of honest desire. Barnett wants the real stuff, and she's also more than willing to mete it out. Good stuff.

  • Artist: Courtney Barnett
  • Album: "Tell Me How You Really Feel"
  • Recorded at: Soundpark, Australia
  • Produced by: Courtney Barnett, Burke Reid, Dan Luscombe
  • Website: www.courtneybarnett.com.au
  • Personnel: Courtney Barnett (vocals, guitar), other musicians
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