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Parquet Courts - "Human Performance" | Album Review

by Sebastian Friis Sharif

Hype is fickle thing. Sure, it can catapult you out of the murk of internet obscurity and diminish the limbo between day job and a career in music faster than you can say 'major label deal'. Who wouldn't be the shit rather than just shit, even if only for a while? But hype, it seems, can also snowball out of control and mutate into something with a life of it's own, fucking up the narrative of a given artist or band in the process.

If you're a social media savvy artist with popular aspirations it can be a godsend because, hey, you're already playing the game. But what if you're a hip NYC underground punk band with a well-established DIY-ethos, fervent anti-social media stance and indie cred in spades? How do you all of a sudden separate the true believers from the bandwagon-jumpers? How do you maintain a loyal following when fans risk becoming disillusioned about losing their esoteric discovery to a frothing crowd yelling ”dance, monkey, dance!” at the top of their lungs? How do you survive long enough to be canonized in the annals of popular music and avoid being dumped in the scrapyard of nearly-made-its that's already chock full of bands that inspire comments such as ”hah, do you remember that band? They were so mid-oughts!”?

Well, so far Parquet Courts has weathered the storm, and they did so on the strength of their conviction. They jumped gracefully over the sophomore slump with 2014's Sunbathing Animal (well, technically it was their third album counting American Specialties, but we're talking post-fame...), creating an album that in many respects surpassed it's predecessor while demonstrating artistic growth. 

That's not to say they've come out unscathed, though. They've certainly had their doubts along the way, and haven't been afraid to vent them in public, notably on 'Pretty Machines' from 2014's Content Nausea on which co-frontman Andrew Savage questioned his own idealistic notion of punk rock. ”But these days I fear that my window is just a reflection,” he sang, admitting that he might've been projecting his own ideals unto the shortcomings of others.

Perhaps as a result, the band took a vow of silence in 2015 with Monastic Living, an EP/mini-album of mostly instrumental, drum-less, guitar-based noise tracks (detractors might call it mindless noodling) which baffled a lot of fans. It certainly baffled me. For a band so heart-on-the-sleeve as Parquet Courts, I found it a mysterious move. Was it a two-birds-with-one-stone kind of thing serving as both an anti-commercial statement and a way to shrug off the insincere hangers-on? Was it a document of a band fumbling in the darkness of an existential crisis? Or was it simply a mark of a shift in musical direction, perhaps a byproduct of their fruitful collaboration with their noise experimentalist pals PC Worship?

Whatever it was Parquet Courts needed to get out of their system, a different band has emerged from the cocoon. Gone are the most of the in-your-face politics (save for the pretty obvious comment on police brutality “Two Dead Cops”). You'll find few easily digestible slogans like ”life's lived best when scrolling least," very little of their usual clever, poetic critiques on hypocrisy, consumerism or the ubiquitous FOMO. They've shed away everything that could come off as holier-than-thou and swapped the art-school skepticism for a new-found vulnerability.

In this respect, Human Performance is a fitting title. Not because the band feels the need to affirm some archaic rockist idea of authenticity and distance themselves from popular electronic music, but simply because they've allowed themselves to fully expose their own flaws and insecurities instead of hiding them under the guise of devil-may-care nonchalance. Take for instance the delicate, romantic (an adjective I'd never thought I'd use about a Parquet Courts song) ballad, “Steady On My Mind” where second frontman Austin Brown ever so softly sings of never having been able to “commit to much” but wanting to learn how to reciprocate the love of his object of affection. Never before has Parquet Courts sounded this naked. With it's gentle guitar-strumming, sweet, almost twee, melody and minimalist drumming confined to the background, the song feels like a tribute to classic Velvet Underground ballads such as “Candy Says” and “Pale Blue Eyes”.

The Velvets, however, isn't the only point of reference for Parquet Courts' music. They're a band that has inspired countless of comparisons, almost to the point of it becoming trite. It's not surprising, though, that critics and journalists want to play their favorite game of “spot-the-influence” seeing how unabashedly their music flaunts their grasp of rock history. Brown's deadpan spoken singing on “One Man, No City” might be the best David Byrne impression this side of Ought's “Today More Than Any Other Day”, while the offbeat rhythm, robotic vocals and dissonant-yet-quirky riff in the verse of “I Was Just Here” could be a lost b-side from Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

But like other quintessential “record collector bands” - Yo La Tengo, Deerhunter, Titus Andronicus to mention a few - Parquet Courts seem to thrive on irreverently selecting and inverting their source material as much as saluting it, creating a modern concoction that's very much their own. On Human Performance this eclecticism reaches new heights: There's the very 60's-sounding mellotron flute on the title track, the smooth nighthawk jazzy atmosphere of the crystalline vibraphones in 'Captive Of The Sound', the tongue-in-cheek exotica of the bongos and raga-like guitars on “One Man, No City”, not to mention the Link Wray-esque surf rock lead on second single “Berlin Got Blurry”.

Add to this two very distinctive voices in front. You're never in doubt what song was written by who, partially because whoever wrote it, sings it (well, duh!), but also because of the personas Brown and Savage have created through their songs; personas that, while disparate, seem to inhabit the same universe. Here Brown is the eccentric usually writing songs that are tiny stories about neurotic or anxious characters, on Human Performance embodied for example by the misophonic recluse on 'Captive Of The Sun' or the narrator's horrifying description of dust as something out of The Thing on the opener 'Dust'. Savage, on the other hand, often plays the part of the turbo-mouthed indignant yelling from atop the soap box, and though he's dialed back the aggression a bit on Human Performance, you can still hear the fury in his voice on songs like “Paraphrased” or “Two-Dead Cops”.

Fans that latched onto Parquet Courts because of the immediacy, visceral energy and jagged guitar-tone of their first effort(s) might be ambivalent, even outright disappointed, about the idea of the band “mellowing” or “maturing” as so often happens to bands as they become established (so much that it has become a cliché). Yeah, sure, the exciting feeling that the songs could've been penned in under 10 minutes with a triumphant cry of “next!” is gone, but it doesn't change the fact that Human Performance is their most thought-out, well-executed effort so far. It's the sound of a band in control of their game, living by their own principles, unfazed, at least outwardly, by the opinions of tastemakers. If music history hasn't already started on a plaque with their name on it, somebody better get to it.