Nick Bollinger digests a New York-inspired album from transplanted Texans Parquet Courts.
The essential ingredients of rock ‘n’ roll are so simple, I sometimes wonder whether every combination has been exhausted. Then a band like this comes along and refreshes them again.
Parquet Courts’ new album, grabbed me with the opening track ‘Dust’. Not that I haven’t heard all the elements here plenty of times before: a kinetic drumbeat reminiscent of early Devo, that relentless one-chord guitar, an organ that might be straight off the first Jonathan Richman album, and a droll, sung-spoken vocal that taps a tradition stretching from Lou Reed to Steve Malkmus. And yet for the three-and-a-bit minutes that this song lasts, they make all those things seem new.
For a start, anyone who succeeds in writing a song which gets all the chord changes out of the way in the ten seconds before the drums and vocals come in has my respect; that’s making minimalism work for you. And what a great subject for a minimalist rant: those atmospheric particles that are unavoidable and everywhere. It’s the perfect metaphor for whatever you want, or don’t want, in your life. Or it’s ecological, the wearing down of the world. Sweep as much as you like, it keeps on coming. Or it could just be a song about dust.
Human Performance is the fifth album Parquet Courts have made, since they formed in New York City, just over five years ago, around Texas-born brothers Andrew and Max Savage. And kicking it off with a track as immediate as ‘Dust’ (a song by guitarist and co-lead-singer Austin Brown) is their most surefooted move so far.
In some ways, it is case of maximising limitations. Neither Brown of Andrew Savage, who share most of the vocals, is a conventionally strong singer, though that doesn’t detract from the effectiveness of the song that gives the album its title.
There is the odd melodic moment. The title track has a pretty tune with a lilting ache, as befits the lyric: a love song, or at least a song about losing love.
For most of Human Performance, though, Parquet Courts write as though all the tunes have already been taken and they are not going to let it bother them. Instead they work in an area that’s not quite melody, not quite rap, yet perfect for lyrics as thoughtful and playful as these.
On ‘Captive of the Sun’ the music shimmers, like a city through fog, helped by the pealing notes of a vibraphone, while the images pile up in a way that reminds me of Beck. The song makes a picture of urban New York – the Savage brothers’ adopted home – as music; hence great images of ‘half-tone harmonies from the sewer’ and a ‘first-chair car crash’ in the Philharmonic.
This is thinking-person’s rock’n’roll, but Parquet Courts’ thinking can be as punk as it is poetic, particularly in a song like ‘Two Dead Cops’, which sounds a note of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign by comparing the public mourning over the shooting of two police officers with the overwhelming complacency towards the number of black youths who die at the hands of the cops. It’s hardly the album’s most musically original moment, but in its punk directness and tough political stance it smashes through any notion that these transplanted Texans have turned into effete art-rockers.
Parquet Courts are a relatively new band, and can still sound a bit like a tribute to their record collections. But with Human Performance, they have made a good album; perhaps better than anyone could have predicted who saw their musically impressive yet oddly uncharismatic shows here a year ago. Hopefully they will come this way again, and I’ll be curious to see whether their presence has grown as much on stage as it has on disc.
Songs featured: Dust, Human Performance, Captive Of The Sun, One Man No City, Two Dead Cops, Outside.
Human Performance is available on Rough Trade Records.