Live albums are a bit of a lost art these days. There was a time everybody did them, and some live versions were more popular than their studio counter parts (I’m willing to bet many of you have never heard the studio version of “I Want You to Want Me”). While the advent of video live sessions and things like the Spotify Sessions have worked to fill that void, new recordings of bands playing in packed theaters to raucous cheers are few and far between.
Courtney Barnett’s Live at Electric Lady Studios in New York is not quite that but it’s damn close.
There are a couple things to consider with any live recording. The most important question is also the reason live recordings are much less popular today – Can the band play? With music production being what it is, there are many acts that simply can’t reproduce what they have on their album. What you get instead is a rhythm section playing along with a computer. In some cases this means the only significant difference between a live recording and the record would be a singer without auto-tune.
This is not something you have to worry about with Courtney. First of all she doesn’t really even sing in the traditional sense. Instead she slurs out her lyrics in a Bob Dylan/Craig Finn talk-singing voice. While this might be off-putting to some, in reality it’s dope as fuck, and in the context of a live recording, it basically means she can’t sing the parts wrong. They weren’t ever quite “right” to begin with.
Taking a step back, you hear the band behind the voice: Courtney on guitar, Andrew “Bones” Sloane on bass, and Dave Mudie on drums. And they can play. Their arrangements are strong and the parts are played right. And coming off the recording is the reason live albums became so popular to begin with: Energy. It sounds like a band playing in a room together, feeding off each other. You can feel it.
Unfortunately this energy can be at odds with the other big “live record question”: How does it sound? Generally speaking, what you gain in energy you lose in fidelity. While Courtney Barnett was never known for her produced sound (rather she is known for her performing sound) there is a noticeable difference between the studio versions and live ones. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Listen to her guitar tones on “Avant Gardener.” They are simply massive. The band sounds like so much more than a trio at times, and she really gets some awesome noise out of her axe. That effect could never come across the same way on a studio track, as you would never know if it is coming from the performance or the production. Here, you know.
But, alas, the sword is double edged, and there are other things that Barnett can never do with a trio. The best example of this comes out in “History Eraser.” It’s a balls-to-the-wall punk love song that revolves around a chanted refrain “In my brain I rearrange the letters on the page to spell your name,” (Fuck yea, right?). The studio version snaps between furious guitar-charged verses and this refrain, chanted over one sustained guitar chord and a tambourine. This has a massive effect. The transition is jarring, and the return to thrashing verse is awesome every time. On top of this, the refrain line sounds like its being chanted by an occult chorus. While the music drops out, the vocal part switches from one voice to many.
The live version can’t do that. The verses are so packed with lyrics that Courtney needs the chorus to catch her breath. That leaves only Bones and Dave to sing the refrain, which the whole song is built around. In this version, it seems the band tried to combat this by keeping the instrumental parts going through the refrain. What is meant to keep the energy up actually stagnates the song. The studio version has the effect of the floor dropping out from under you. The live version is more just a stroll down a hallway. This would not be a two paragraph issue if that weren’t her most popular song.
“History Eraser” gripes aside, this a killer live album. It brings the impressive power of Courtney Barnett’s trio into your living room. The few moments of in-between-the-songs chatting are endearing. The song selection is strong, but as this was recorded years ago, all the songs are off of The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Fans of Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, might be a bit disappointed. Instead they can keep their fingers crossed and hope that this is not the last live recording to come out of this Aussie badass.