This week, in this space, I expected to be writing about Big Wheel And Others, the sprawling new double-album from Cass McCombs, one of the greatest songwriters currently existing in the indie rock universe. And Big Wheel And Others is, in a lot of ways, a very good album. In a lot of ways — and some of the same ones — it’s also a bit of a mess. It’s McCombs’s loosest, jammiest record by far, and it’s no accident that the bass player from Phish shows up. And it also works in a wispy, drifting-across-landscapes sort of way, like the whole thing is McCombs’s attempt to write songs for a nonexistent auteurist ’70s movie, possibly one that stars Harry Dean Stanton or Ryan O’Neal. And after a few weeks with the album, I still haven’t quite found a way in. I love bits, pieces, individual moments, but the whole thing just sort of floats past me when I try to grab it. I could still find a way in; in fact, I expect to. An album like that exists to be heard, put aside, rediscovered later; it strikes me as the sort of album where a half-remembered song will take on a sudden resonance after, say, a deer makes eye contact with you from across a field in a certain way. So instead, I’m finding myself writing about another loose, jammy ’70s-sounding album with an oddly mechanical descriptive title from a lyrically sharp-but-elusive singer-songwriter. Sometimes life is like that.
Here’s the important thing about Courtney Barnett, a 24-year-old Australian who sings and plays guitar and leads a band: She can write. Consider, if you will, “Avant Gardener,” a story-song in which our unemployed narrator attempts to get her front yard to look like less of a disaster but then suffers from a sudden and extreme panic attack. The early parts, the ones where she’s trying to find the will within her to do normal-people stuff like pull weeds, are blase and conversational: “The yard is full of hard rubbish / It’s a mess and / I guess the neighbors must think we run a meth lab.” But as the narrative ascends, and she finds herself fighting for her life in the back of an ambulance, her tone stays just as calm and neutral: “The paramedic thinks I’m clever cuz I play guitar / I think she’s clever cuz she stops people dying.” And so you have to consider the words to hear what’s going on emotionally in the song; she studiously keeps the frustration out of her voice when some guy notices her medical ordeal and displays zero empathy: “Halfway down High Street, Andy looks ambivalent / He’s probably wondering what I’m doing getting in an ambulance.” She can do straight-up relationship-talk, too, and on “Out Of The Woodwork,” when she sings “Did you know you’re no good at listening / But you’re really good at telling me everything on your mind,” it’s clear that she doesn’t consider that second part to be a compliment. And then there’s “History Eraser,” a wonderfully surreal ramble that knowingly evokes mid-’60s Dylan and depicts entire ridiculous scenes in a couple of sharp and precise strokes: “We drifted to a party: Cool / The people went to arty school / They made their paints by mixing acid wash and lemonade.” I just wish I still had friends in art school so I could make fun of them by rhyming “party, cool” with “arty school” and acting like I made it up myself.
The temptation with a words-first artist like Barnett is to conceive of the music as a word-delivery system, to get all the lyrics out and then to end the song as quickly and cleanly as possible when that’s done. But that’s not how Barnett rolls. She and her band play it shaggy and expansive and vaguely traditional, like the Band. Acoustic guitars are part of what she does, but they’re just one part. Pianos and organs overlap and dart in and out of each other. The riffs have real bite to them, and triumphant guitar solos sometimes flare up from the landscape around them. Songs regularly spread themselves lazily across six or seven minutes. The construction is never exactly tight; there’s some Pavement in the way things happen according to their own oblique logic. (There’s probably also some Lemonheads in the sunny-stoner vibes that waft through from time to time, too.) But this isn’t an indie record. I get the feeling that, if you called Barnett’s music “bluesy,” she would not take it as an insult. And with Australia standing tall as the world’s second-greatest exporter of both country music (Keith Urban!) and cowboy stuff (The Man From Snowy River!), I can’t help but hear a bit of once-removed twang in the down-home arrangements. But what Barnett chases musically is the loose immediacy of classic rock, and she gets the way that stuff works much more than the various ’70s revivalists on the festival circuit seem to manage.
The Double EP is, as the title implies, a compilation of two EPs that Barnett has released in Australia over the past year or so. Talking to Pitchfork, she clarifies that she doesn’t think the collection is an album, more that it’s “good practice.” As for the album proper, she “might start on it early next year.” But if these EPs are practice, they’re really fucking good practice. There’s some musical evidence of the collection’s patched-together status. The second of the two EPs, the one she recorded in a proper studio, comes first. Really though, that just makes The Double EP sound like a frontloaded album. And for all the promise it shows, it might be best to think of The Double EP the same way you’d think of Fugazi’s 13 Songs: A double EP that works as a debut album, one that promises great things to come, one where you’d assume it to be a proper album except that it points out that it’s not in the title.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Dismemberment Plan’s long-awaited return Uncanney Valley.
• Pearl Jam’s sturdy and dependable Lightning Bolt.
• Paul McCartney’s majestically assured New.
• Cults’ crowd-pleasing sophomore album Static.
• Four Tet’s skittery, all-over-the-place Beautiful Rewind.
• Cass McCombs’s grandly lazy double-album sprawl Big Wheel And Others.
• Tim Hecker’s ominous drone monolith Virgins.
• Castavet’s expansive black-metal opus Obsian.
• Fall Out Boy’s inexplicable Ryan Adams-produced lo-fi punk album Pax Am Days.
• Stereogum contributor James Jackson Toth’s latest incarnation Wooden Wand & The World War IV.
• Former Galaxie 500/Luna leader Dean Wareham’s solo joint Emancipated Hearts.
• James Ferraro’s absorbingly spacey NYC HELL 3:00 AM.
• Young Dro’s much-delayed sophomore effort High Times.
• Here We Go Magic frontman Luke Temple’s solo debut Good Mood Fool.
• Pelican’s ambitious instrumental metal record Forever Becoming.
• Fresh & Onlys guitarist Wymond Miles’s dark and romantic Cut Yourself Free.
• Kwes.’s glitch-soul LP ilp.
• Crystal Antlers’ bleary punker Nothing Is Real.
• Heavenly Beat’s warm, woozy Prominence.
• Red Fang’s clean, impactful sludge record Whales And Leeches.
• Matt Kivel’s calm, placid Double Exposure.
• La Luz’s dark-surf debut It’s Alive.
• Happy Jawbone Family Band’s cleaned-up and hi-fi self-titled album.
• TLC’s career-spanning collection 20.
• The Men’s acoustic Campfire Songs EP.
• Antlers side project School Of Night’s self-titled EP.