Review: Parquet Courts – Human Performance

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Parquet Courts have been nothing if not prolific these past few years. After releasing their debut American Specialties in 2011, they released the acclaimed Light Up Gold in 2012 and the EP Tally All The Things You Broke in 2013. In 2014 they again earned critical acclaim with Sunbathing Animal, only for the band’s guitarists and vocalists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown to release Content Nausea under the name “Parkay Quartz” later that year. The band then released the experimental EP Monastic Living late last year, and announced their fifth full length about two months later.

You may wonder if this relatively dense discography has come at the expense of quality, but with the exception of Monastic Living, Parquet Courts have made consistently good music. More impressive is that they have made this consistently good music with minimal recording equipment and post-production effects. For instance, the album Content Nausea was recorded in two weeks on a four-track cassette and featured some excellent tracks. This has caused many to label Parquet Courts as “slackers” making “slacker rock,” a term the band dislikes. In their defense, “slacker” insinuates that the band didn’t put effort into the music, when in reality it’s well thought-out music with a raw sound that places little distance between studio versions and live performances.

In this vein, Human Performance is the most well thought-out Parquet Courts release to date, as it was recorded over the course of a year. Lest you think this would translate to a more polished sound, it’s still a fairly lo-fi rock album that’s only marginally less raw than previous releases. And despite coming on the tails of Monastic Living, it once again shows Parquet Courts’ penchant for creating great, inventive rock music.

At first glance, Human Performance is a fairly even-keeled album. Sure there are faster moments, but nothing matches the frantic title track of Sunbathing Animal or most of Light Up Gold. Instead, most of the album shuffles along at a moderate tempo, with opening track and the album’s lead single “Dust” setting the tone. It’s a somewhat unusual song, partially because of its droning guitars and monotonous vocals, but mostly because it seems to literally be about dust. And even if it’s not the best track on the album, the quasi-chorus of “dust is everywhere – sweep!” is sure to get in your head.

 

“Dust” may be the most nonsensical song on the album, as elsewhere the band shows their more sincere side. Human Performance’s title track is a stark look at love lost, with lines like “I know I loved you, did I even deserve it when you returned it?” This is followed by the brief yet catchy “Outside,” which follows a similar lyrical theme with a chorus of “I’m wound tight and bound by the secrets you saved, the pieces you’ve kept/They’ve risen and slept without you.”  Both are excellent songs that make Human Performance the most personal (or as they say, “vulnerable”) Parquet Courts album.

Most commentary and reviews of Parquet Courts tend to bring up the band’s similarity to 90s lo-fi rock outfit Pavement, yet Human Performance seems more likely to elicit comparisons to the Velvet Underground. The subdued guitars on the aforementioned “Dust” vaguely echo the group’s sound, while the notes of “Steady On My Mind” sound like a mellower version of the Velvet Underground’s “Lady Godiva’s Operation.” Yet the track sure to bring up the most comparisons is “One Man, No City” as it not only includes an extended Velvet Underground-esque guitar solo, but also a bongo part and vocalist Austin Brown singing in a Lou Reed-inspired monotone. The band pulls off the style very well, showing that they’re more than capable of trying different musical approaches.

New musical directions for Parquet Courts aren’t limited to borrowing from the Velvet Underground, as the band shows tinges of country on a couple of Human Performance’s tracks. The first of these, “Berlin Got Blurry,” features a twangy guitar solo in between depictions of loneliness in Germany, while the second “Pathos Praries” has strong, jangly guitar riffs throughout while the more country notes appear during the chorus.  Previously, the closest the band had come to country was the folky “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth” from Content Nausea.

Other new sounds for the band on Human Performance are a bit of a mixed bag. The track “I Was Just Here” sticks out for being the most discordant track on the album, and only really becomes listenable during the last 20 seconds. “Captive of the Sun” is a better kind of weird, with its semi-rapped lyrics over psychedelic guitar echoing Beck’s “Loser.” Then there’s the contrast-filled “Paraphrased,” which goes between indecipherable shouting and borderline whispers to make a track that may be attention grabbing, but not an enjoyable listen.

For a band that does relatively simple, stripped-down rock, it’s quite a feat for Parquet Courts to be so prolific, yet so innovative. All of their albums are distinct from one another, and they clearly aren’t scared to experiment, even if that did give us Monastic Living. Yet that EP is a small misstep in the course of the remainder of Parquet Court’s discography, which is packed with great albums. Likewise, Human Performance seems to be a microcosm of Parquet Court’s experience so far, with minor faults, new musical directions for the band, and reliably high-quality tracks.

Rating: 7.5/10