Ali Barter – A Suitable Girl (Inertia)


Introducing Ali Barter, a Melbourne based singer-songwriter, best known for her 2016 single Girlie Bits.  She’s sweet and angry; dark and light; deep and shallow.  She’s a strong feminist activist and a naive teenager starting out.  She’s all that and none of it.

On her new album, A Suitable Girl, she takes every cliché you can think of and throws them at you like the curveball you’ve been waiting for but never expected.  Her music is sugar-coated pop with a hard centre of Riot Grrrl intensity.

On first listen you’re transported back to the era of Shirley Manson (Garbage) and Nina Person (The Cardigans).  Barter has clearly taken inspiration from these ladies.  You can hear it in her lyrics and in the arrangements.  Heavy guitar riffs run up against with tea-sweet vocals.

This album seeks to call out those who make those kind of passive/aggressive sexist comments to girls and women all the time, often without thinking – the kind women endure all the time.  “Give us a smile baby act like a real lady,” she sings on Girlie Bits, “Call off those battle lines flash us your panty lines. What’s a woman, what’s a woman, what’s a woman, woman made of..?”   What this women’s made of?  You wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley.  She’s had enough.  Rightly so.

Let’s start with Cigarette, which I originally thought, naively, was some kind of post-coital contemplation.  Musically, it washes over you, so you might not take notice.  But I read the lines again: “Like you found your prize / I’m so tired of standing next to you / With nobody caring what I do / If I shaved my head would you / Tell your friends you don’t really care?  /Really care? / Don’t ask for a Cigarette, cigarette.”  This is a declaration.  This is a question.  What’s your real intentions here?  Don’t assume anything.  She does this a lot.  Challenging the listener.  Much of it is aimed at men, various, but also the women who support them or hang with them.

Ali invites you to underestimate her just so she can hit you with a wall of venom and sugar bundled up in some brilliant guitar shredding at just the right moment.  A brilliant example of this is on Far Away.  Again, it’s a wind up and then the sucker punch.  It’s like the best Smashing Pumpkins songs, like Today, which begins softly then unleashes at full force.  Far Away is like that.

Barter’s very commercial sounding Please Stay came as a bit of a surprise.  On one hand it’s saccharine and chirpy but every lyric sounds like a post PMT apology as she lists all her crimes and misdemeanours then acknowledges.  “I know I push you away, please stay….”

“The Captain is about someone that I used to be really close to who I felt was losing his way”, Barter wrote on music blog “This person I had loved was becoming someone I didn’t understand and it hurt like hell.”  Her lyrics capture that so well: “You’re the Captain, sitting there on top of your mountain, but you’re wondering why no one is running…” opens the song, The Captain, a reference to a one-sided ego.  Barter takes no prisoners pointing out that this person, whoever they might be, are in a party of one at this table with cliché after cliché flung at the perpetrator for being a self-deluded narcissists.

Light Them on Fire is her best effort at a girl band anthem.  With its rousing chorus you could be mistaken for thinking this was an outtake from Josie and The Pussycats but listen closely “Take your promises and light them on fire, empty words, they will burn from a pyre!”  You can imagine a circle of ex-girlfriends dancing around a bonfire of bullshit love letters watching them go up in the flames.  “I won’t fall for it.  I won’t fall for you!  I’m better!”

She also reclaims popular historical characters.  Barter’s Delilah is a million miles away from the self-destructive character from the Dresden Dolls song of the same name.  No way is this woman gonna return to an abusive boyfriend or compromise herself in any way.  Explaining the song on the blog she says “This song is about my other self. The part of me that doesn’t give a fuck. She isn’t jealous or scared or threatened. I was channelling Bette Davis Eyes and Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon.”  True that.  I’m gonna insist that all three of my daughters listen.  This is a great role model song.

But Barter can also offer some earnest to God moments, too. On her ballad Tokyo, she sounds wistful, and a little melancholy, if only for a moment.  Imagine Billy Corgan doing this one – sweet but with the driving Pumpkins’ sound underneath – and you’ve pretty much got the right flavour.  It’s a nice break from the angst and sexual politics but I think she’s most effective when she’s taking people to task – especially when confronting ex-boyfriends: “But you don’t understand what it’s like to be a man” she sings on the aforementioned Girlie Bits.  “None of this angriness/ Show us your Girlie Bits!”  And you know the song has touched a chord out there when choirs start using it in their repertoire (check out the version by Melbourne Indie Voices on Youtube).  They want positive role models in their songs and what could be better?

Ok, so her sound isn’t gonna start a revolution but for many women and a few men, this is brilliantly cathartic.  Sure there’s a bit of a 90s revival going on among the music, but what’s wrong with that.  Given the mire of misogyny inherent in so much of our modern pop I’d rather have a stroppy woman who rocks the truth any day!

Tim Gruar