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Review: Courtney Barnett, 'Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Here's an honest album title - "Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit." That's what the full-length debut of Courtney Barnett is called. It came out last week and is getting a lot of attention, just as she did at this month's South by Southwest music festival. The 27-year-old singer is from Melbourne, Australia. Critic Will Hermes explains why she's the best storyteller he's heard in a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD FOX")

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: Courtney Barnett understands how overloaded brains work. Her songs register mundane details like roadkill or a truck driver's safety sticker, then swerve into anxiety triggers like corporate greed or the shortness of life, and then get distracted by allergies or where to stop for gas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD FOX")

COURTNEY BARNETT: (Singing) Heading down the Highway Hume somewhere at the end of June. Taxidermied kangaroos are littered on the shoulders. A possum Jackson Pollock is painted on the tar. Sometimes I think a single sneeze could be the end of us. My hay fever is turning up, just swerved into a passing truck. Big business overtaking without indicating. He passes on the right, been driving through the night to bring us the best price. If you can't see me, I can't see you.

HERMES: Courtney Barnett's oddball storytelling was fully-formed on her early EPs. But on this first full-length, she's upped the rock and roll quotient, which adds a new sort of power to what she's doing. You can hear Barnett's affection for Nirvana - the band, that is - on the song, "Pedestrian At Best."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEDESTRIAN AT BEST")

BARNETT: (Singing) Give me all your money, and I'll make some origami, honey. I think you're a joke, but I don't find you very funny.

HERMES: The guitars are great, but ultimately it's the sound of her synapses firing through her lyrics that's most compelling, like in this song about house-hunting in a Melbourne suburb and getting creeped out when she discovers that the previous owner had just died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPRESTON")

BARNETT: (Singing) Then I see the handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee, tea and flour and a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam. And I can't think of floorboards anymore, whether the the front room faces south or north. And I wonder what she bought it for.

HERMES: Barnett's facility for wordplay and compressed narrative has more in common with great rappers than pop songwriters, and her debut is the best rock record I've heard this year. She's a poet of panic attacks and short attention spans and the kind of heartbreak that always seems to be following right in your blind spot. And she's just getting started.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEBBIE DOWNER")

BARNETT: (Singing) Tell me when you're getting bored, and I'll leave. I'm not the one who put the chain around your feet. I'm sorry for all of my insecurities, but it's just part of me.

CORNISH: Courtney Barnett's debut album is "Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit." Our critic, Will Hermes, is author of the book, "Love Goes To Buildings On Fire." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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