Release Date: Apr 8, 2016
Record label: Rough Trade
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Noise Pop
"Socrates died in the fucking gutter," Andrew Savage memorably exclaimed on Parquet Courts' debut LP. In that inciting phrase, he went a fair way to encapsulating the band's character; a nod to both their amusing intelligence and an image of the strains and disappointments of city dwelling, which have become more pronounced as they've progressed. This post-punk collective are cutting, both in their musical style and in their lyrics, coupling them with dynamics and understanding that show off both these strengths.
With 2012’s Light Up Gold, Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts were thrust into the garage rock limelight, and what followed was a feverish period of productivity: reissues, albums, EPs, a brief sojourn as the streamlined Parkay Quarts. At times, the frequency with which new material appeared painted the four-piece as rock’s foremost hoarders. Fast forward through a relatively quiet period to new album Human Performance, and it feels like a spring clean by comparison, perhaps the most refined and singular vision of the band yet.
Few bands are as articulate as Parquet Courts, so Dust confounds our expectations right away with sparse lyrics that leave the story unfinished. The music, however, is eloquent enough, an interweaved playing of tense guitars and organ swirls that paint images of urban blight and crumbling tenements. This time around there are more shades and textures to the band's sound, no doubt aided by the album's long gestation, which is quite contrary to the hurried DIY approach of their first recordings.
When Parquet Courts debuted in 2011 with the supremely bratty American Specialties cassette—its Dada-esque cover art a repurposed Chinese takeout menu—Andrew Savage, who is also a visual artist, presented the facts unsentimentally. "Facebook pages/ Boring boring!/ Rock'n'roll has got me snoring," he gasped over a skeleton of atonal guitar-noise, ultimately landing upon the most sacred of conclusions: "Music! Matters! More than ever! Free your brain and conform never!" Lucky for us, Parquet Courts have spent the past five years heeding their own call. With Human Performance, their third proper album and first for London's legendary Rough Trade Records, Parquet Courts offer a fine testament to rock's continued power and relevance.
So far, Parquet Courts has shown little interest in straight lines. Rather, having released four stylistically diverse full-length albums and two EPs between 2011-15, the Brooklyn band veers all over the place, as if they’re in a hurry to capture all of today’s ideas before a fresh burst of inspiration sends them scurrying off in a new direction tomorrow. Their restless muse has led them through an impish collection of shaggy stoner songs on 2013’s Light Up Gold; the dense and knotty follow-up Sunbathing Animal in 2014; the tossed-off Content Nausea six months later, recorded by just half the band; and the jagged, experimental 2015 EP Monastic Living.
Parquet Courts operate a primarily vacant lot in the popular music landscape, dealing in the detritus of modern life through the medium of half-sung garage rock. They’re less indebted to guitar heroics than Malkmus, more cynical than Richman, not quite as cool as Reed, but what they do have is a whole extra generation of malaise (and music history) to mine and deliver. Their earlier full-lengths are mainly frenetic affairs, odes to searching for meaning and relevance (and love) as a stoned and starving artist in Brooklyn.
Even in an absurdly abundant time for brilliant young indie bands, Parquet Courts approach their jittery art-punk guitar buzz with a playful sense of adventure that sets them way ahead of the pack. The Brooklyn-via-Texas dudes have built a fervent following in the past few years by indulging their whims. Sometimes that means wildly funny hardcore rants complaining about social ills like the military-industrial complex, or comments sections.
Six years into a career which has included arguably two of the decade's finest albums, there’s still a lot of talk about ‘who’ rather than ‘what’ Parquet Courts sound like. And while flattering comparisons to Wire, The Velvet Underground and Pavement hold water, it’s a critique which ignores the Brooklyn quartet’s most notable quality: unwavering progression. It’s a trait, which has seen them rarely recycle for the sake of convenience, or pander to the expectations of fans and critics.
Human Performance sees Parquet Courts sprucing up their sound – although that says less about any mainstream ambitions the fiercely DIY Brooklyn band may have and more about the fact their previous albums sounded like they were recorded in the kind of rusting bean can Daniel Johnston might have rejected on the grounds of poor acoustics. So while this fifth album is tighter and cleaner, it’s far from chart-ready. Instead it wears its pre-punk to post-punk influences proudly: the title track’s tumbling melody could have been penned by Squeeze; Berlin Got Blurry is pumped up like prime Elvis Costello; One Man One City, with its bongo rhythm and psychedelic wigout, is as smart/dumb as James Murphy at his smartest/dumbest.
There is nothing stoned or starving about Human Performance, the most deceptively straightforward album yet from the four very un-straightforward dudes in Parquet Courts. What feels cleaner, catchier, and ten steps closer to Jeff Tweedy (who contributed production and guitar) than anything else they’ve ever done, is actually their knottiest and least-grooving record yet. Always trying to throw banana peels at the press, Andrew Savage and Co.
“It isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften without a coffin.” The subsequent explorations of the human condition and claustrophobic New York life are compellingly grim. The jittery ‘Pathos Prairie’ finds Savage rasping about his “fondness for life” being erased before a brutal guitar solo, and over the swinging ‘Outside’ he barks: “Dear everything I’ve harmed: my fault lies on my tongue”. Meanwhile, ‘I Was Just Here’ noisily explores displacement and the feeling of coming home and realising your favourite takeaway has shut down.
Andrew Savage works through tough emotions on the title track to the new Parquet Courts record. He questions his own emotional sincerity after a breakup and parses whether his reactions were the result of societal programming. Was he acting, giving a "human performance?" Did he, in his words, simply behave as a malfunctioning apparatus? .
After getting a bunch of weirdness out of their system on the Monastic Living EP, Parquet Courts return with their most focused album to date. Human Performance finds the band at its songwriting peak: almost every song is catchy and tight enough to be a single. Kicking off the album with the driving, droney "Dust" sets the tone right away, with its clean production and punchy rhythm section pounding the chorus directly into the brains of listeners.
Parquet Courts have been busy; their last album, the three-month-young Monastic Living, was a strange, exploratory dive into the depths of feedback and abrasion. While an interesting experiment, and a valuable insight into the band's muted mindset, the almost entirely instrumental project didn't provide much for listeners to grasp onto.Human Performance — recorded at the same time as Monastic Living — represents the other side of the coin. It feels substantial, and marks the band applying themselves in a host of new ways.
Like an old leather jacket that still fits just right, Parquet Courts is certain to make fans of golden-era indie rock feel warm and nostalgic. The band isn't exactly shy about displaying their influences, from the stiff punk backbeats and taut, wiry riffs seemingly pulled from some kind of CBGB time capsule, to the clean guitar arpeggios, yowling slacker vocals, and dry stoner humor redolent of their most obvious forbearers, Pavement. But even if there are aspects of their sound that are derivative, their fifth album, Human Performance, represents a significant step forward in terms of the band's emotional range and melodic richness.
Parquet Courts’ reputation for nonchalance sometimes threatens to overshadow everything else. Camera shy and dishing out barbed-wire-tongued statements like there’s no tomorrow, they’ve built their modest empire on stern faces and steely resolve. As ‘Dust’ kicks ‘Human Performance’ with all the cocksure arrogance of a spaghetti western, that attitude still clearly rules the roost.
After last year’s wilfully difficult Monastic Living EP, you’d be forgiven for expecting Parquet Courts’ latest full-length album to take a similarly off-the-wall approach to melody and structure. Hold those horses, because the NYC four-piece might have just made their most cut-and-dried record yet. It turns out – when you strip away the fuzzy, stoner-psych walls of the band circa 2012's Light Up Gold, and put the hedonistic blather of their Sunbathing Animal incarnation on ice – you’re left with infectious, sparse and clarified rock songs.
By now, it should be easy to roll your eyes at Parquet Courts. Frontman Andrew Savage, guitarist Austin Brown, bassist Sean Yeaton, and drummer Max Savage are their own stereotypes. The four look exactly the way their music suggests: gangly white dudes with ruffled button-ups, shaggy hair, and forlorn faces that scream “I Don’t Care, Really, I Don’t!” They publish DIY rock at an alarming rate, pulling on post-punk and garage as need be while mainstream’s all-encompassing jaws chew up most everything they release (last year’s vapid EP, Monastic Living, withstanding).
Don’t let the haters fool you: there isn’t another band out there quite like Parquet Courts. In a time when the idea of a gang-of-four has never felt less exciting, Parquet Courts have been doing serious work to fold the image of punk music back unto itself, turning out its posturing front for all to see and then skidding that surface between self-important chin-stroking and filthy self-indulgence — all on a bed of inspiring, first-rate guitar history. It’s skeptical music, but above everything, it’s honest, having fun with its own concepts of shallowness without being afraid to get confused over what it even takes to be human these days.
Like most of the best classic post-punk that they turn to for inspiration, Parquet Courts draw from everyday life for inspiration. This can mean tributes to the dull, mundane minutiae, as well as gut-wrenching matters of the heart. Human Performance, the Brooklyn quartet’s latest album, is the result of an entire year’s work, whereas previous albums were made in a matter of days or weeks.
As a result of the critical, and later commercial, success they received, New York stoners Parquet Courts left the punk scene behind to tour the world, but the punk ethos never really left them behind - their post-Light Up Gold output, bar 2014’s exceptional Sunbathing Animal, has been deliberately difficult. The most obvious example of this was last year’s Monastic Living EP, which came as backlash to the omnipresent association of Strokes-like catchiness and ended up sounding like the blueprints of Bloc Party’s debut album, Silent Alarm, being brutally castrated by Swans at their most experimental. Monastic Living’s sole purpose was to challenge what you thought you knew about Parquet Courts, and despite not doing much else, that’s what it achieved.
With 2014’s Sunbathing Animal, New York four-piece Parquet Courts finally, at the third time of asking, began to marshal their undoubted talents into memorable songs. Human Performance feels like a logical progression, with slightly stronger material, most notably the title track, a sublime slice of brooding garage rock, and the emotional dislocation of Berlin Got Blurry. Elsewhere, One Man, No City starts like Talking Heads and ends like a looser Velvet Underground, while Two Dead Cops reprises their earlier, punkier sound.
The Upshot: Transcending its past, the NYC-via-Texas quartet blends the backbone of rock ‘n’ roll—simple song structure, basic-level playing skills—with the clever street patter and sharp observation that made NYC acts like the Velvet Underground, Television and the Ramones so iconic in the first place. If you watched the first season of Vinyl, the HBO series fetishizing the 1970s New York City music scene, your takeaway was likely the opposite of what the show’s creators intended: If rock isn’t dead, somebody please kill it before it resembles this show’s Madame Tussauds waxworks. Essentially a soap opera dusted with cocaine and tribute bands (stand-ins for David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Bob Marley and the New York Dolls all make appearances), the series—inexplicably green lighted for a second season—follows the tribulations of the fictitious American Century Records label as it staggers from one self-inflicted financial crisis to another in the early 70s.
As much as they might play it off, Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts have become pros at making nonchalance sound calculated. From the foursome’s Light Up Gold postpunk breakout to their side game as Parkay Quarts up through their mostly vocal-less, experimental-noise foray Monastic Living, apathy reigns supreme as the mundanity of the urban slog—and the fleeting relationships built within its bubble—gets poked at and prodded by almost delighted Richman-esque soliloquies. Still, what’s most prominent on Human Performance, Parquet Courts’ first full-length record since leveling up to Rough Trade, is how its undercurrent of anxiety and paranoia—forged by the arrangements and relayed via the lyrics of Andrew Savage and Austin Brown—precipitates an indifference that becomes even more engaging thanks to its sophistication.
This consistently superlative NYC post-punk quartet turns a new corner with its fifth outing. Moderating the spellbinding verbosity that saturated previous high-water marks like "Ducking & Dodging" from 2014's Sunbathing Animal gives this latest batch more space to develop and marinate. Droll opener "Dust" cops a minimalist German prog groove that worms into the subconscious, and the title track's meditation on relational breakdown crushes a trad-pop tear jerk in on itself.