Album Review: Parquet Courts, ‘Human Performance’

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[Originally published May 23, 2016]

When Parquet Courts basically emerged out of nowhere in late 2012 with their superb proper studio debut Light Up Gold, critics and listeners were instantly taken aback: here was a group that combined the airtight melodies and smart-ass lyrical turns of Pavement with the loudSOFTloud dynamics of the Pixies, all while managing to display a completely original sound. With 2014’s dual-release of Sunbathing Animal and Content Nausea, the group built on these foundations, adding just a twist of country-soaked rock to the mix.

On Human Performance, their fourth LP, vocalists/guitarists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown, bassist Sean Yeaton, and drummer Max Savage, let completely loose, sounding more unified and brazenly confident in their sound than ever. It’s a legitimate rock record if there ever was one, packed with lovely, melodic chord changes, whip-smart turns of phrase, and just the right amount of fuzzy weirdness.

The album opens with a few seconds of chugging guitar before launching directly into the delightfully eccentric single-chord air pollution anthem “Dust.” Thumping drums and wacky keyboard noodling augment the song’s ridiculous, almost juvenile lyrics (“It comes through the window/It comes through the floor/It comes through the roof/And it comes through the door”). The track is fairly straightforward until something magical happens: it starts to gain momentum, with the band piling on layer after layer of sound until – suddenly stopping. It’s moments like this that define what Parquet Courts is: a gathering of brilliant folks who aren’t afraid to experiment, juggle styles and have some fun in the process.

These moments are to be found in no short supply on Human Performance. In fact, things get downright insane more often than not. “I Was Just There” clocks in at just under two minutes, but the sheer weirdness of the thing – the 7/4 time signature, the angular-as-hell harmonies, the repetitive, droning, staccato vocals, the abrupt switch to speedy punk in the track’s final seconds – leave a mark on the listener’s psyche after just one listen. “Captive of the Sun” is a silly romp with semi-rapped stream-of-consciousness lyrics over a quasi-robotic beat and a tingling vibraphone; it also happens to include some of the most deliriously entertaining lyrics the band has ever penned (“I sightread the chart, clap the rocks into sand/A 12-pass van on a pothole bandstand/Got an oil-can hangover by default/And trucks pave the roads with amphetamine salt”). The understated love ballad “Steady on My Mind,” with its soft, sweet guitar and drum-bass grumble, makes for one of the record’s most unsettling yet lovely moments.

Then, we come across the goofy epic “One Man No City,” a gripping meditation on personal isolation, manages to sound simultaneously monotone and urgent. Featuring jangly, Peter Buck-esque guitar and the tapping of conga drums, the track culminates in a turbulent, vamping outro topped with an off-kilter guitar solo. The whole thing is very reminiscent of the Fall’s best work from the 80s – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Savage’s vocals are a big part of what makes the record so enjoyable. He gives us his best Joe Strummer on lead single “Berlin Got Blurry” as a Smiths-like bed of guitar, organ, drums and bass babble behind him. On “Paraphrased,” he weaves back and forth seamlessly between paranoid barking and whispered incantation; he sings softly and ever-so-slightly off key over the automated beats and shrieking, wobbly guitar of “Keep It Even,” then returns to his nervous yelp on the straightforward hardcore punk jam “Two Dead Cops.”

Even in its relatively less “out there” moments, the album finds the band working its signature kind of DIY magic. The title track is a lovely, psychedelic number alternating between light verses and heavy choruses, telling wistfully and eruditely of a lost love (“I know I loved you/Did I even deserve it/When you returned it?…Breathing beside me, feeling its warmness/Phantom affection gives a human performance”). “Outside” sounds like a slightly less polished version of Wilco – the band whose Loft, incidentally, was chosen as the location for part of the album’s recording.

The record closes on two stellar country-inspired tracks: “Pathos Prairie,” a jittery, garage-meets-rockabilly examination of modern human behavior; and the slow-fizzling “It’s Gonna Happen,” highlighting the lethargic dueling vocals of Brown and Savage and ultimately fading away quietly into ambient noise.

Overall, Human Performance serves as the perfect showcase of the ambitious, witty, bizarre, and brilliantly produced garage rock with which Parquet Courts have made a name for themselves. These four gents have proven themselves the future of rock; here’s hoping that that future only further emboldens their creative spirits. (9.1/10)

Parquet Courts

Human Performance

Released April 8, 2016 on Rough Trade Records

Produced by Austin Brown

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