April 21, 2016

TEST SPINS: Parquet Courts, Human Performance

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If you haven’t heard of Parquet Courts by now, it’s too late — the bandwagon has collapsed under the weight of their fandom. The band’s just-released fifth full-length album, Human Performance, is as strong a showing as any of their previous records, although their energy has shifted a bit. Frontman Andrew Savage’s neurotic sensibility remains consistent, but, to some extent, he’s turned away from the overtly political and thrown a microscope onto his own anxieties and romantic flings.

Parquet Courts self-consciously follows a lineage of New York groups that goes back to the Velvet Underground, by way of punk acts like the Ramones, Suicide and New York Dolls, as well as via No Wave acts like Sonic Youth. At the same time, they’ve relished comparisons to British post-punk group of the ’70s — bands like Gang of Four and Wire. As much of an influence as any particular band is the city itself: Savage tells us of heartbreak and despair, as he sings on “Captive of the Sun,” “in the key of New York.”

The band’s first album, American Specialties, came out via cassette in 2011, but Light up Gold really announced their arrival on the scene. That album experienced tons of critical success and also garnered respect in New York’s DIY scene. Its most enduring single, “Stoned and Starving,” jibed with a generation of pseudo-intellectual stoners, who immediately bought into Savage’s existential musings on the mundane and the profound — in other words, being baked and hungry.

Sunbathing Animal represented another step-up for the band. It’s hard to generalize about that album, since Savage is all over the place instrumentally and thematically. He opens the album with a dose of body-horror, incanting on bodies made of “slugs and guts … sparks and dust.” From here, he hops between maniac hardcore (“What Color is Blood,” “Sunbathing Animal”) and Modern Lovers-style art punk (“Dear Ramona”) and everywhere in between.

After Sunbathing Animal followed Content Nausea, which found Savage and his bandmates bemoaning consumer fatigue and the emptiness of excess. From there, it seems like the band needed a palate cleanser to reset the expectations of their fans. Thus came Monastic Living, a (pretty much) entirely instrumental noise collection in the style of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

Human Performance finds the band back at top form, but perhaps at a notch emptier in terms of manic energy compared to these past releases. The album opens with “Dust,” which followers of the band might have heard recently as the record’s lead single. The song will surely stress out the band’s more obsessive and compulsive listeners, with Savage mocking our attempts to create lives of organization and routine, singing over and over again, “Dust is everywhere, sweep.”

From here, we move into one of the album’s highlights, the title track “Human Performance.” Savage reflects on a past relationship with vivid imagery, the dead objects in his apartment recalling a brief escape from the loneliness it triggered. Despite his attempt to escape the despair that the relationship has left in its wake, he recognizes that its grip “won’t soften without a coffin.”

Indeed, love and heartbreak are subjects that Savage returns to throughout the album, to great effect. On “Berlin Got Blurry,” he’s back on the prowl, falling in love with a stranger in Berlin who intrigues him with her teutonic beauty and refusal to use a cell phone. The track opens with a gutsy surf guitar intro, and opens up into a vocal section, where he puts on his best attempt at being suave: “Guess you got a history but it’s not worth mentionin’ tonight.” Even here, however, Savage realizes that falling in love might just be a trick of his perception. During the chorus, he sing-talks, “Berlin got blurry when my eyes started telling it to.” He’s consciously allowing the city around him to cloud his senses, to wash away his anxiety and fill him with new feelings.

Savage’s love-life, though, is only one of the many themes here. He explores his depression and the toll it takes on his body on “Outside.” He dives into his attempts to keep cool in a fucked up world on “Keep it Even” and “Pathos Prairie.” On “Two Dead Cops,” a track which recalls Content Nausea’s closer “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth,” he tells the story of two officers murdered in Brooklyn in 2014, and after an album of personal musings, returns to full-on political form (“Protect you / is what they say, but point and shoot / is what they do”).

Finally, the album closer, “It’s Gonna Happen,” comes as a powerful counterpoint to the sound and fury which precedes it. Here, the band takes a slower-paced approach, with little more than unadorned guitar and Savage’s vocals.  Amid a world of “plastic faces”  which “feel cold and / uncommon like they’ve got some / place to be,” he has found a degree of inner peace. As if trying to convince himself of this, he sings that he’s “not an impostor,” and tells the listener that “it’s gonna happen every time / so rehearse with me in mind.” It’s a bittersweet ending to a driving, varied, surprisingly affecting album.