Courtney Barnett’s Claim to the Throne: ACL Taping Review

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Photo by Bryan C. Parker

Australia’s Courtney Barnett sits poised to become the queen of indie rock. As Austin City Limits’ Terry Lickona noted last night before Barnett took the stage: it’s rare for artists to perform on the revered, long-running television program mere weeks after the release of their debut full-length. Barnett has received acclaim from an ever-expanding horde of fans, from attentive critics to each and every first-time listener, convinced immediately. I’ve been a fan since I first heard her song “Avant Gardener” on the radio, but it wasn’t until I saw last night’s overwhelming outpouring of adoration at ACL that I tried to pinpoint the exact elements that make Barnett so convincing.

The shiny pop sensibilities of set opener “Elevator Operator” disguise the consistent appeal of most of Barnett’s body of work. Songs like “Lance Jr” and “Debbie Downer” have the laconic nonchalance of Pavement and early Strokes as well as the anxious, wry growl of Nirvana. Barnett has synthesized some of the most important musical voices of the last few decades. No, she doesn’t always sound like them, but she has taken their attitudes and aesthetics and melded them with the rising trend of garage rock bands to create a sound with wide appeal.The melodies refuse to leave your mind. The drums are lean and deliberate. The bass lines ride low, bouncing forward propulsively. Barnett’s ability to find this sound isn’t a mistake, and she draws not only from these unmistakable, landmark acts but also lesser known acts from indie rock history. Before she launches into one of her own songs last night, two familiar notes ring out, and she mumbles, “That was two seconds of the Go Betweens.”

Barnett says hardly anything onstage all night. She introduces her band. She relays the titles of a few songs. But she doesn’t seem nervous or unsure of herself. Nonplussed by a shout from the crowd to introduce herself (even though the set is almost over) she obliges with just enough edge in her tone to indicate the absurdity of the request but still keep it genuine. Mostly, Barnett just rocks out. She raises her guitar above her head and strums, falls to her knees, bends back in a classic stance a la the cover of T. Rex’s Electric Warrior as she shakes her shaggy hair. Courtney Barnett has it all: the sound, the stage presence, and the good natured shrug that has typified iconic rock ‘n’ roll personalities since the genres birth. She’s just getting started, but if her early career serves as an indicator of what’s to come, she will be one of the decade’s most lauded figures. Pay attention as she climbs up to sit atop rock music’s throne.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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