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Sprawling With Opportunity: Parquet Courts’ Human Performance

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I’m evidently the last living person in Brooklyn to have heard Parquet Courts.

My ignorance could be explained by the fact I live in the last unfashionable neighborhood in the borough, or that for the past few months, I’ve mostly been listening to my Eastern-European neighbors conducting small-scale court martials against their teenage children. Maybe these are interrogations – the screams and rebuttals in a language as incomprehensible as Sanskrit to me – or maybe joyous celebrations of academic achievement and after school activities. “I curse the seed that brought you to this earth, Uri” could just as easily be, “way to go Uri – you made the team. I’m confident you will be a sufficient linebacker.” Either way, the screams aside, it’s nothing you can dance to.

Human Performance, the new Parquet Courts album, is something you can dance to, albeit in that staid, white-guy indie way – the way that says, “I totally feel this beat, but the employment rate for recent college grads is just, so bleak.” It is a densely rhythmic album, suffused with odd stabs of noise and touches of past sub-genres. It leaps at opportunities in arrangements, never remotely content with one musical approach. It is a very concentrated album, absolutely deliberate, nearly studied but still breathing, self-conscious to a fault but danceable. It is also unapologetically informed by its sense of location.   I drag in the domestic skirmishes of my neighbors with some calculation, as it is one of those unavoidable elements of living in New York, and along with its wider scope of alienation, “Human Performance” is a very self-consciously New York record. Torpedoed human relationships, fakery, shit being torn down and general jadedness inform it as much as the energized pavements, sense of open streets and vastness.   As far as the songs:

“Dust” – Though possibly verging on an obligatory, bass-heavy Velvets rave-up – with its shards of two-car garage organ chords and Moe Tucker backbeat – “Dust” is locked in a hard, steady rhythm, its guitar figures twisting in helix over a choir of monotone voices repeating, “dust is everywhere, sweep.” Its weirdly narcotic in its self-mesmerized recitation of how the dust accumulates, how it “comes through the roof, it comes through the door.” It’s a paranoiac’s torch song, though a resigned paranoiac – the sense of being trapped in filth, feeling it overtake you, but being immune to it through overexposure, perfectly fine with its gathering.

“Human Performance” – The title track and understandably goddamned so. At this point in the album I adjust my posture and wonder what kind of troglodytic, white-skinned scum I am to have ignored this stuff. Listen to this Scottish guy’s voice for chrissakes – like Edwin Collins on a cough syrup blackout! And that elastic bass, the sparkling Tom Verlaine-approved guitar chords, the wailing chorus stretched against walls of distortion! From the opening drum roll I am convinced this is one of the best songs I’ve heard in 10 years by someone not named Mark Kozelek. Even if the lyrics read in a clinical way at times, as though the narrator is self-diagnosing his heartbreak via search results on WebMD, there is this, which is damn fine and I can tip a bottle to any time: “ashtray is crowded, bottle is empty, no music plays and nothing moves me.” Musically, maybe its melody evokes Wire’s “Outdoor Miner” but maybe I’m just an asshole. (Also, according to the internet, there are no Scottish people in this band)

“Outside” – Enjoyable-enough and so what if I don’t remember it – it goes by like a greased goose shit, quickly, if a little bit affected by the floating ghost of Brit-Pop from Christmases Past (Blur).

“I Was Just Here” – A real piece of shit. Digs out more emblems from our spurned fraternal nation of England, spitting out angular Gang of Four vocal patterns over jive-ass imitation-Devo guitar skronk. Also includes a lyrical nod to a Chinese restaurant that disappeared through “commercial revitalization” or whatever they call it these days, after which the lyrics “I was just here” emerge like a bad joke, commenting on how quickly everything disappears in the city. Just what the world needs, more white kids in New York talking about gentrification.

“Paraphrased” – My memory has placed all recollections of this song in the Witness Protection Program. It has 4,000 structural shifts in the span of 4 minutes, but so does an earthquake, all more memorable.

“Captive of the Sun” – I spill coffee in my crotch, scalding a future generation of hall-of-fame Little Leaguers when this one comes on. Is that a fucking xylophone? A white guy rapping with the same strained confusion as a high school principal? Theoretically this should be a trashed experiment but I dig it: doubled-over, tin-moaned vocals against a tremelo of feedback and general weirdness, hilarious lyrics about being assaulted by all the warring sounds of New York like, “dump truck man drops the beat with trash cans, call 9-11 we have therapy demands.” It’s self-consciously awkward but interesting, and whether it works or not, I remember it each time I listen to the album and can’t help but laugh at the ironic refrain of “a melody abandoned in the key of New York.”

And just as quickly as I’m awakened “Steady on My Mind” swoops in with what the coroner calls lividity – the blood pools to the bottom of my skin through lack of circulation and just lays there. We are treated to an indie-rock line-cook’s retread of “Pale Blue Eyes”-isms and whispering vocals: “Sometimes I need a reprieve, I know you’ll understand/You lift the weight in the distance/When my eloquence subsides.” I suspect the singer has sex with his pants on. “I’ve never felt committed to much/But that don’t mean I can’t learn/To Dedicate and reciprocate what you send my way” all but confirms the suspicion.

“One Man No City” is the biggest piece of shit I’ve heard since “I Was Just Here.” This song sounds like it was assembled by Jonathan Richman’s toilet paper and pro tools. It doesn’t sound remotely alive or like any sound created by breathing people. Though “I find buildin’ blocks filled with nothin’” is a good observation, I can’t quite breathe through the tub-beating moronic thumps and scrawny McGuinn-lite guitar scrawl. It goes on for 6,000 light years and has bongos, in the event you asked for them. At this point I wonder why I was enjoying myself so much a few songs ago; was it the infiltration of sub-par material to disrupt my infatuation, or did the Chinese food I ate earlier poison me.

“Berlin Got Blurry” – And yet again I am snapped awake and stunned by how good Parquet Courts can be when they knock out some of the heavily-mannered apathetic indie-Guru shit. Cacti-rows of Spaghetti Western guitar lines, galloping bass, manic strums and great chord changes – so many disparate things converging; organ intercessions, malevolent rodeo melodies crashing against the lyrics “nothing lasts but nearly everything lingers.” Fucking phenomenal. The emotions are less clinical, more urgent: “Well Berlin got blurry when my eyes started telling it to.”

“Keep it Even” – A plea for keepin’ it damn mellow, with high overtones of the grand Brothers Meat (of the Meat Puppets). The structural changes on this one are magnificent, if subtle. What starts as a plaintive, vaguely-twee acoustic ballad gets its balls bagged by a beautiful, hideously dark guitar solo, a winding chorus, a southwestern highway backbeat ricocheting with cricket keyboard noises. “An ugly mantra in my head/It lies there on the floor/Like a bed.” Short. Too damn short.

“Two Dead Cops” – At the swing of a dime, the porch-whittler’s lament gives way and I could swear I’m listening to Mission of fucking Burma. I don’t know if I mean that diminutively, but even the sound effects over the driving beat scream “VS”-era Burma. Diminutive or not, it’s not easy being Mission of Burma – hell, Mission of Burma got tinnitus even trying. The energy is good, anything else burns up in its wake. The subject, however, is verging on what any good bartender will tell you is, “stupid.” This song details the shooting of two cops in Brooklyn. The chorus is “Protect you is what they say/But point and shoot is what they do,” which is the kind of anti-authority lyrical grace that would make any 14 year old suburban prick in a Hot Topic-bought Rancid shirt happy. Not a bad way to spend 2 minutes, but leave the political outrage to people with the perspective to actually articulate it.

“Pathos Prairie” – Just goddamn goodness. Not many overdubs or touches here, just a tight melody, buzzsaw guitar solo, underwater chords and some prayers laid to the altar of Wire’s Pink Flag-era. Short and to the point, endlessly playable.

“It’s Gonna Happen” – Where did this come from? After shifting, sorting and discarding styles, imitations, moods and various levels of sincerity (however questionable), the last song on the record is a goddamn gorgeous song of genuine loss and acceptance of that loss. A mid-waltz lullaby trapped in a snow globe, lacquered with soft, rattling snare hits and cautious guitar lines. Not evocative of anything, any artist or style so much as it is just simply good. “At first old conventions/Seemed staged and uncommon/It’s gonna happen every time/So rehearse with me in mind.” Just. Good.

Human Performance mirrors so much of the city it relates itself to: it is exciting, sprawling with opportunity, obnoxious and sometimes deeply disappointing, though only in relation to the heights it reaches. There is restless energy to Parquet Courts and their willingness to try nearly anything, though that breadth of possibility exhausts itself on one too many past styles, voicings; they are students still, but growing. To their benefit, the restless cataloguing of musical pasts and indie-touchstones aid in the part of revitalization, demanding that people turn the goddamn decibels up on the amps and beat the shit out of their guitars, to take chances. To its fault, there is something oddly “inhuman” or unconvincing, removed in the lyrical matter from its delivery. Songs on the album vary wildly with heartbreak, police brutality, gentrification, changing landscapes and human indifference, though my biggest hang-up refers to the self-awareness, the nearly apathetic, after-hours sincerity of its cataloguing.

Honestly one of the better releases I’ve heard in a damn while, despite or because of its frustrations. As an aside, the digital-only track “Already Dead” is a fabulous thing with a carnival beat and coiling guitar lines that should be sought-out and listened to.