Courtney Barnett’s 2015 debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit was a big hit with both critics and fans. Tracks like “Elevator Operator” and “Pedestrian at Best” treated audiences to Barnett’s witty banter mixed with early 90s guitar sound. Many tours later, plus a well-received effort with Kurt Vile, Barnett releases sophomore effort Tell Me How You Really Feel. After listening to the attention weary album, the title comes off more of an inward question than an outward one for the Melbourne artist.
First single, “Nameless, Faceless” features a jangly guitar melody until the chorus blows that away with distorted vocals singing the Margaret Atwood quote “men are scared women will laugh at them… women are scared men will kill them”. “City Looks Pretty” hits the ground running but slows down considerably half way in. Perhaps a metaphor for Barnett speeding through life then needing to rest. “I’m Not Your Mother…” is more harsh sounding and could easily have come straight from Nirvana’s In Utero.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is not as immediately likable as her debut. There is a tiredness to some of the tracks. “Charity” asks “You must be having so much fun/everything is amazing” before asking, “so subservient, I make myself sick/Are you listening?” The feature song here is album closer “Sunday Roast”. A sadness runs through until the uplifting chorus statement, “I know you’re doing your best, I think you’re doing just fine”. Barnett does not always make it an easy listen but one that reveals several gems through repeated listens.
Released last fall, Sticky Fingers, the biography of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner sent shockwaves through the publishing community. Wenner randomly ran into author Joe Hagan and asked him to work on his biography which eventually Hagan did after much deliberation. At over 500 pages, Sticky Fingers is well researched with many facts but mostly focusing on what a terrible person Wenner is. Tawdry tales of sex, drugs and not as much rock and roll as would have been expected; politics plays a bigger role throughout the book. Almost shockingly in the Afterword, Hagan notes that Wenner is “one of the great magazine editors of my lifetime”. Touching on Wenner’s personal life but putting it in greater context of the times or the publishing business would have been more interesting than all the tiresome stories that appear here. 6/10
The Sri Lankan born, Canadian based author Michael Odjaante is most famous for his book The English Patient which won the Booker Prize in 1992. In total he has published seven books including the recently released Warlight. Published in 2011, The Cat’s Table is his sixth book and tells the story of a young boy who travels from Sri Lanka to England aboard a ship called Oronsay. His travelling companions are Ramadhin and Cassius along with his aunt and cousin. The book switches between the boat and what happens to the characters after their journey. It’s a fascinating book with beautiful passages throughout including a wonderfully described scene at an art gallery many years later. 7.5/10
Steve Martin started his entertainment career doing card tricks at Disneyland as a young boy then worked his way all the way up to touring arenas in the late 70s. Born Standing Up is about the growth of both Martin as a person and his comedy act. A quick read, it touches on both philosophy and self-improvement strategies that many self-help books promote (working hard, letting go of what’s not working, dedicating time to your craft, research, etc). Born Standing Up is an entertaining account of Martin’s rise through touring comedy before walking away completely. 7/10
Way back in the 90s Belle & Sebastian became a much loved band in the world of indie rock. Besides excellent albums such as If You Are Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap, the band released several coveted EPs. In late 2017 and 2018 B&S released three EPs one month apart which were then collected on one disc entitled How To Solve Our Human Problems. This idea recalls the 1997 boxset of three early EPs albeit in different packaging.
The 90s version of the band was known for Stuart Murdoch’s melancholy lyrics about awkward relationships and witty asides but over the years they have blossomed into an excellent band who easily move from ballads and folk-rock to 70s blue eyed funk. “Sweet Dew Lee” is an upbeat opener with a pleasant guitar melody whereas “We Were Beautiful” recalls darker electronics of “Electric Renaissance” from debut album, Tigermilk. “I’ll Be Your Pilot” showcases a beautiful chorus while that EP’s closer “A Plague On All Other Boys” was written after meeting teenage contest winner from the Write About Love era in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. The next EP starts with “Poor Boy” which is all steering wheel tapping funkiness. Album closer “Best Friend” features Carla J Easton and sounds like a more mature take on classic “Lazy Line Painter Jane”.
“Best Friend” aside, female vocals have always been a one of the best things about Belle & Sebastian – from Isobel Campbell in the early years to Sarah Martin from the early 2000s onward. Here the Martin lead tracks are mostly forgettable. “Everything Is Now” appears twice – once as an instrumental and the second time around with lyrics, neither register while the abrasive “Cornflakes” is mostly dreadful. At fifteen songs, How To Solve Our Human Problems has lots to like but little to love. Somewhere within there is a killer 10 track album.
On various message boards, one constant thread is the struggle to follow new music while keeping up with ever growing physical and digital collections. It’s easier to keep up with a sliver of a niche than try to be everywhere but what fun is that? Meghan Remy’s cleverly named U.S Girls project is one of those that passed us by when she signed to 4AD in 2015 after 4 studio albums. The Illinois born, Toronto based artist’s second release on that prestige label caught our ear after hearing the excellent Citizen Kane inspired single “Rosebud” and In A Poem Unlimited started getting rave reviews.
Third track on the album, “M.A.H” (Mad As Hell) is a mix of 70s Blondie disco with Gwen Stefani vocals. A closer listen to the lyrics reveal a critical look at Barack Obama’s presidency. In this time of the left railing against Trump, it’s a curious throw back look to the Democratic hero. The aforementioned “Rosebud” is laid back R&B dance music with electronic strings striking throughout. “Incidental Boogie” is a vicious track about an abusive relationship set to distorted guitar over a terrific groove. “Poem” maybe the catchiest techno dance track about capitalism to come out this year.
The music that Remy creates on In A Poem Unlimited is extraordinary and the lyrics are uncompromising. “Pearly Gates” describes seducing St Peter “I opened my gates wide and St Peter came inside” and wonders how heaven can be safe if it’s run by men…? “Rage of Plastics” is about becoming infertile while working in a manufacturing plant. The pop sheen throughout gives a door to the political lyrics and while these will be anthems to some, it will make a hard listen for others.