The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas

Courtney Barnett

Mom + Pop Music, 2013

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Why do people love Courtney Barnett? There are probably as many different answers for that as she has fans. For this particular listener, it's because she is such an incisive and fearless observer of human foibles.

In other words: she’s a hell of a songwriter.

This was made plain by her formal debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (2015), and reinforced by last year’s Tell Me How You Really Feel, both of which showcased her songs within robust yet uncomplicated full-band arrangements that highlighted the contrast between her spiky, assertive guitar playing and her mostly deadpan vocals.

Of course, everyone has to start somewhere. The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas collects a pair of early-days EPs with the typically idiosyncratic names of I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris (2012) and How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose (2013). At six tracks each, when added together the two EPs make for a tidy 12-song LP.

The album presents the later EP first, which makes sense insofar as the music feels closer to her familiar style at this point in her development. Still, the first two songs (“Out Of The Woodwork” and “Don’t Apply Compression Gently”) remind you how central to her appeal the contrast between punchy music and sleepy-eyed vocals is, by failing to provide that contrast. Instead, the music largely emulates her vocal approach, which works, but is inevitably less interesting; there’s tension in the music, but it’s significantly diminished.

That essential tension reaches full flower on “Avant Gardener.” Easily the highlight of this collection, a mid-tempo number brimming with wisecracks and clever asides and Barnett’s trademark sarcastic ennui: “It’s a Monday, it’s so mundane.” As the almost-entirely-true narrative unfolds, Barnett decides to harness her ambitions by gardening in the front yard, only to develop trouble breathing, have a panic attack, and get carted away in an ambulance. “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar,” she sings, “I think she’s clever because she stops people dying.” It’s essential Barnett: clever but self-deprecating, snappy yet tinged with a knowing melancholy.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“History Eraser” and “David” also remind of Sometimes I Sit And Think, the former with its rhythmic push and pull and aggressive riffing, and the latter with its density of sound and more developed dynamics. “Anonymous Club” closes out the first half (and later EP) with a gentle, daydreamy fantasy of cocooning with a loved one.

Speaking of crushes, “Lance Jr.,” the first track from her debut EP, wastes no time getting the listener's attention, as Barnett sets a hypnotic groove and opens with this verse: "I masturbated to the songs you wrote / Resuscitated all of my hopes / It felt wrong but it didn’t take too long / Much appreciated are your songs."

In general the tunes from her first EP feature arrangements that are both simpler and looser. The lyrics have that tartness and snap, but the songs are less structured and in several cases devolve into extended jams that find Barnett experimenting with feedback and effects, most notably “Porcelain,” “Are You Looking After Yourself?” and “Canned Tomatoes (Whole).” The latter is practically a spoken word piece; the music is there, but it's really just repeating chords that eventually devolve into aimless, feedback-laden soloing.

The point being that, like many developing artists, Barnett appears to have gotten better at editing her own work as she went along. Let's face it: as good as she is on guitar, Barnett’s signature appeal is those biting, insightful lyrics. As if to underscore this point, Barnett closes things out with “Ode To Odetta,” a pair of two-line verses and a two-line chorus that repeats over the same chord sequence for 2:47, feeling more like a chant than a song.

More to the point are lines like this one from LP opener “Out Of The Woodwork”: "It must be tiring trying so hard to look like you're not really trying at all / I guess if you're afraid of aiming too high then you're not really gonna have too far to fall.” Barnett pokes at the shortcomings of both others and herself with the precision of a surgeon.

In the end, the two EPs that make up this collection accomplished exactly what was intended: they showcased Barnett’s songwriting and drolly deadpan vocal performances, paving the way for all the goodness that has followed. While not essential for the casual fan, for those of us who’ve fallen thoroughly under Barnett’s spell, A Sea Of Split Peas offers a worthwhile peek into her early songbook.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2019 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Mom + Pop Music, and is used for informational purposes only.