Friday, April 22, 2016

album review: 'human performance' by parquet courts

So I'll admit right out of the gate that I was a little tentative to cover this record. I think I've gone on record about how most lo-fi garage rock doesn't really excite me unless the hooks are stellar or they're doing something incredibly bizarre - see the collected output of Ty Segall - but that's not saying I dislike the genre, more a factor that if you've heard a lot of this brand of indie rock it can start to blur together a bit. 

Well, okay, that's not fair, and I'll admit that Parquet Courts does stand out a bit. Their wordy brand of art punk first materialized around the turn of the decade and immediately racked up critical acclaim for albums like Light Up Gold and Sunbathing Animal. And yeah, I liked those records: the guitar lines were sticky, there was some groove there, and you could tell that the lyrics had a certain cleverness that I could definitely respect in isolated chunks, often taking broad shots at Internet culture and finding something to respect... but more often than not, I got the feeling the band hadn't quite reached the level of ambition or instrumental heft groups like Ought or fka Viet Cong had. Good for sure, but a shade away from real greatness for me.

Granted, I get the feeling Parquet Courts were looking to change things up too, because after dropping two records in 2014 - the latter Content Nausea being released by only half the band under a slightly different name with a much rougher, more punk tone - and an EP that confounded critics, they looked to follow it up after a few years of touring with this release, which promised to be a mellower, yet more eclectic new record. So okay, I'm good with Parquet Courts pushing themselves, so what did we get with Human Performance?

Well, it's a tricky listen - one of those indie rock records that draws a lot of thought building on a relatively simple structure. And while I wouldn't say I was always wowed by it - again, like most Parquet Courts albums I'd easily describe this as very good while only on the cusp of being great - it was still a record that inspired a lot of thought and relistens, and I can applaud that at the very least. 

So let's start off with our vocalists - Andrew Savage with the slightly rougher howls, Austin Brown with the more methodical, slightly more reserved tones. And really, while there are points where I think Brown can feel a little flat and Savage can be a little too off-kilter and borderline incoherent for his own good, I tend to like a lot of the singing here, complete with enough harmonies and switch-ups to keep things interesting, from the Beck-like half-rapped delivery on a song like 'Captive Of The Sun' to how on the final two bars of the chorus of the title track the vocals pile in to really anchor that hook. And sure, you could draw connections to acts like the Talking Heads with the delivery on 'One Man No City' - or to vocals you'd hear off the last Ought record from Tim Darcy - but I do give them credit for at least trying to harmonize on hooks to add a little more flavour.

And speaking of flavour, this is probably where Parquet Courts have expanded the most since their previous record, as the instrumentation and production is a fair bit more diverse than their previous work while still maintaining a cohesive, weathered sound that sticks to their strengths. The acoustic guitars are brittle and textured, the riffing is choppy but manages to compose some pretty great melodies, the drumming is sparse but can definitely get interesting at points, and there really are some striking basslines if you listen for them. And all the while, this record leaps across different brands of guitar-driven indie rock, from the more jangling punk side on 'Two Dead Cops' or the off-kilter 'I Was Just Here' to touches of surf rock on 'Dust' and 'Berlin Got Blurry' before dipping into hollow psychedelia on the title track or 'Captive Of The Sun' to outright art rock on 'One Man No City'. And really, for the most part the instrumental choices really click - I wasn't quite sure about the fizzy tapping percussion on 'Keep It Even' or the bonus track 'Already Dead' - which I highly recommend you get, it really works with this record - but at the end of the day they don't take away from any of the songs, similar to how the deeper drum accents on 'Steady On My Mind' or on the muted organ touches against the eerie rattles and punchier percussion on the interlude of 'Keep It Even'. And while on previous records I've taken issue with Parquet Courts stretching ideas, I'd argue the bass and guitar interplay on 'One Man No City' easily kept the extended interludes plenty interesting even if the song does feel a tad underwritten. And that's not even touching on the instrumental moments I really dug, like the fuzzed out grit of 'Dust' with a great melodic hook accented by the subtle piano, or the spaghetti western feel of 'Berlin Got Blurry' that has a really sweet interlude against that organ, or the borderline country feel of some of the guitar tones on 'Pathos Prairie', or pretty much all of the title track which builds to a great hook off some great instrumental interplay complete with the 60s-esque lo-fi flutes on the interlude.

But really, most people praise Parquet Courts most for their lyrics, so let's dig into the themes, shall we? As always, the writing is a little obtuse and convoluted, the sort of overwritten abstraction that can be a little tricky to build a solid emotional connection with, especially in comparison with acts that seem to cut to something more raw or true. And what gets intriguing is that I'd argue the band gets that too, because while opening tracks might imply some form of break-up and reflection at an ending, this record seems much more concerned with delving into presenting a true version of their reaction, no matter how ugly it might seem. And there's definitely a defined arc to that revelation - the record begins with 'Dust', remnants of death that can smother but also can be swept away so quickly, and from those ashes our protagonist tries to assemble some outward facing form of reality, put on a face that everything is really okay - in other words, very much a human performance. And what I like is how fragile and transparent everyone else seems to find that performance, especially in the face of the impermanence of the setting, how the world constantly seems to shift beneath them, which only serves to feed into the paranoia and isolationist streak of the following tracks, where our protagonist almost seems like he wants to disappear rather than deal with his issues. 

But how that loss is defined comes in on 'Captive Of The Sun' - misophonia, hatred of sound, where he describes himself as a 'passtime streamer', which does more to imply the fleeting nature of art and music in the modern age than anything else, that continued impermanence, self-contained moments that don't have a defined place or time. In other words, Parquet Courts seem to be exploring what happens after they release art to the world and how they can cope with the 'loss' in a world shifting underfoot - and yet that art has left a mark on them they can't escape, even if they want to crop themselves out of the frame on 'Berlin Got Blurry' - and considering I've never been a fan of the whole 'Death Of The Author' thesis, I'm entirely okay with Parquet Courts taking a swing at it, showing how the marks of authorship never quite leave art or artist. And from there, the challenge comes in owning that art - it's implied that you can escape your own legacy if you go hard and fast enough on 'Keep It Even', but the following two tracks show that's really just trying to cover and rewrite your own narrative, using the metaphor of cops positioning themselves as the victims in New York to excuse their actions and neglect on 'Two Dead Cops'. And by the final standard edition track, it seems like Parquet Courts have accepted the reality of their narrative and are just pleading for others to see and realize the same... but on the bonus track 'Already Dead', the authors emphasize that despite being gone, the music lingers in the bones and dust of the earth. Because despite how fleeting it all might be - life, art, relationships, for those willing to listen it does make an impact after all.

In other words... wow, when I decoded this record, there's a wealth of intelligent subtext to this record that I really do appreciate... and yet I feel this record is still a shade away from being truly great. A few songs don't quite stick the landing - 'Paraphased', specifically, feels a little gimmicky in the songwriting construction, and I'm not wild about the vocals there either - and I keep getting the feeling that in comparison to their peers Parquet Courts still haven't gotten all the way there in terms of consistent, distinctive melodic punch. But as it is, this is a damn fine record all the same, and for me it's a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. If you're into records drenched in old school indie rock influences - especially Wire and the Velvet Underground - this'll be right up your alley, but otherwise, if you're looking for some thought-provoking music about music, definitely take a listen.

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