Parquet Courts make post-garage band music.
They are a 4 piece band who moved from Texas to Brooklyn, with 2 guitars, a lead singer, a bass, and drums. The basics. Like your traditional garage band, they rely on distorted guitar effects, loud power chords played in simple patterns, and shout-sung vocals.
What Parquet Courts does so well is finding the pieces of their sound that they do well, and then doing them really well. The band’s music seems like the musicians started jamming together and realized they could either be really good at high energy punk or really good at relaxed slacker-rock, and at some point one of them said, “well, why don’t we do both?”
The fact that they can pull off this weird balance between edge-of-your seat tension and hang-loose contentedness is what makes their music endlessly fun and unpredictable.
It’s all held together by lead singer Andrew Savage’s voice. His Texas baritone yelps, drones, and pleads throughout his music. He can take cryptic lines of prose like this one from “Light up Gold II”,
Twice an era comes a knock at my door, suspended in a window-crashing gaze of a poor spark of recognition
and deliver it in a whirlwind monotone spurt of less than 3 seconds, before backing up and giving his band room to smash in with a heavy power chord lick. It’s weird, fun, and fascinating to see the way Savage and his band interrupt and open up for each other in different ways on each song.
On their first LP, Light up Gold, this was a Brooklyn rock band that was having fun just being a Brooklyn rock band. With eight songs under two minutes long, it’s easy to get the impression that they were finding little riffs that worked and throwing them roughshod onto the album. It remains their easiest record to listen to, and features the standout hilarious songs “Stoned and Starving” and “Borrowed Time”. These are witty, sardonic, self-aware odes to being stressed out and fading, but still alive and goofy enough to jam out together.
From Light up Gold they moved on to release two records in 2014, their masterpiece Sunbathing Animal and the worthy follow-up Constant Nausea. On Sunbathing Animal their songwriting became far more ambitious and varied.
While Parquet Courts didn’t break much new ground in their themes on Sunbathing Animal, they proved they could be original by just being better than their peers at giving their songs clever wit, life, and immediacy, while always deftly avoiding melodrama. Take “Instant Disassembly”, my favorite Parquet Courts song of all time. It opens with the simple guitar and drum motif that carries the 7-minute long song along. It’s lyrics feature Andrew Savage crying out to his ‘Mamasita’, to catch him as he finds himself suddenly sinking. Then, after a long build, the whole band can’t help themselves from crying out,
INSTAAAANT….. INSTANT DISASSEMBLY!
as they feel themselves being pulled slowly apart. It’s a powerful, urgent, and exhausted plea from a band that excels when they feel like they’re at the end of their collective rope. Sunbathing Animal isn’t all gloom and yearning, though. Before releasing the record, the band released sheet music for the lead single, “Black and White”. It was a tongue in cheek joke, because the song consists of basically the same power chord played at Mezzo-Forte all the way through.
Then there’s “Dear Ramona”, a sweet, inventive study of a mysterious love interest, with lines like,
This lady is a hypnosis poet and when she speaks her words weep like rain.
She’s saving up commissions from acting, but no one’s ever seen her play.
Cause she ain’t ever gonna open up (no)
Not to no one, my dear Ramona
Sunbathing Animal was the quintessential Parquet Courts record, and they followed it up with Constant Nausea, a record that offered a long critique of the digital age. It gets a little one-dimensional, but songs like “Pretty Machines” showcase the band’s power at using witty, self-aware lyrics to make the cliche themes feel totally fresh. I love lines like this one:
Pretty machines, expensive magazines,
I’ve been tricked into buying quite a number of things,
Oh, this year it was harder to think, yeah it was harder to suffer.
For Savage, the danger of modernity is specific, as he gets tricked into buying stupid, flashy stuff. It also has extremely high stakes, as he realizes that the new devices and consumer practices are dulling his emotional range, making it harder to focus and to feel. This on-point, personal critique is something most bands would aim for and miss. That Parquet Courts knows themselves well enough to make a relatable, human statement, while still busting out some good ol’ fashioned garage rock when they’re in the mood makes them essential listening in a well-worn genre.
How to Listen:
Start with “Stoned and Starving”, “Dear Ramona”, and “Borrowed Time”. Then go through Sunbathing Animal at your own pace.
My second favorite Parquet Courts song, after “Instant Disassembly”, is “Constant Nausea”. The song opens with a fast, simple guitar rhythm with a single chord change. Then, a lively drumroll jumps in, and that’s it for instrumentation. This simplicity is necessary, because as soon as Savage starts singing there isn’t room for anything else. He sing/speak/yelps a long, poetic diatribe against the dangers of technology. His themes are the same as on “Pretty Machines”, but this is an exhausting torrent of well-articulated complaints from someone who is worn down, distracted, and brilliant despite it.
Update! Parquet Courts’ new album Human Performance is out, and I got to see them perform it in Chicago! The album is about a lot of things, but mostly about proving that it is cool to be the most intellectual rock band outside of Vampire Weekend.