Parquet Courts Are Inscrutably Awesome on 'Sunbathing Animal' (Which Does Not Sound Like Pavement)

8
Sunbathing Animal
SPIN Essentials
Release Date: June 3, 2014
Label: What's Your Rupture?

by Jason Gubbels

Parquet Courts are tough lads to nail down. There are geographical inconsistencies at play: Denton, Texas-based band makes good in Brooklyn. There's lyrical obscurantism masking greater truths: "Death to all false prophets/ Around here we praise a dollar." There's a slacker ethos that at times seems little more than a feint, washed-out production values relegating the bass player to dusty stage corners, eight-minute drum machine stoner fables ("He's Seeing Paths") closing out five-song EPs (last year's Tally All The Things That You Broke). And then there's the band's sound, so alt-rock self-referential it sends music critics into reverie, a supposed apotheosis of indie rock's past and future, beholden to more post-punk scofflaws than any self-respecting record collector might ever hope to catalog, which is ok so long as noise-tune royalty Pavement gets top billing. Pavement, man. Even Stephen Malkmus spun some yarn about hearing a Courts number drift over the airwaves and thinking it was one of his own.

So let the record show that Parquet Courts no longer sounds anything like Pavement, if indeed they ever did (as if men with slopped-out guitars coolly declaiming egghead bursts of verse was ever the intellectual property of Stockton's finest). If 2012's Light Up Gold delighted those seeking short buzzbomb formalism heavy on gnarly hooks, Andrew Savage and Austin Brown have unveiled a more expansive take on said buzzbomb formalism: the "Americana punk" they once cited in interviews, interlaced with a scrappy dose of the blues. Right, the blues, as refracted through the drone sympathies of TX/NY Frank Zappa fans, the thin amphetamine twitch of Pretty Things or Shadows of Knight or, I don't know, "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," complete with a suck-and-blow harmonica solo on "She's Rollin'" and floating lyrics plucked from the delta mud: "Lady Macbeth, rock me mama/ Like my back ain't got no bone."

But there's really no whiteboy guitar prototype left untouched on these 13 cuts. "Always Back In Town" stomps around one of the dumbest surf-frug beach party grooves to have washed ashore since the Trashmen; "Dear Ramona" plinks and plonks over a so-straight-I'm-stoned Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers monotone; drummer Max Savage routinely reverts to primal boom-tat boom-tat boom-tat patterns as if he'd just had the concept of hardcore explained to him over the telephone; Savage/Brown (one of 'em, maybe both of 'em) at times adopt the wide-eyed faux surfer-jock mannerisms of dearly departed Flipper throatman Will Shatter.

One could go on at greater length. But these performances never surrender to the anxiety of influence: All those comparisons are mere reference points for a loose aesthetic that values sustained chordal vamps above all else. Consider title track "Sunbathing Animal," a four-minute gallop through an inspired thrash-mash of the Velvet Underground's "European Son" and "Bob Dylan's "115th Dream," fever-pitch bon mots and mock-profundities sloshing over the sides: "I've hung out at your service jobs!/ I do not miss the child you stole!/ I cannot slow the pace at which I yearn!" Communicating such blurry dictums requires real smarts, just as playing your instruments as if you're holding them upside down demands sustained focus. Which is to say nothing here is as tossed-off as it seems, neither the high-art signifiers nonchalantly chucked out the window like empty beer cans (Duchamp surfaces in "Black And White," "racing down the stairs, in a nude descension") nor lyrical tropes suggestive of notebook jottings and ideas scrawled onto forearms.

In fact, lyrics might be this outfit's secret weapon (go back and study the incisive "Careers In Combat" from Light Up Gold for proof of their political astuteness). With all the attention given over to what Silkworm riff the Courts may or may not be channeling on any given number, it's easy to overlook how sly and surreal their drive-by graffiti really is. They recoil from squalid flesh ("gushing, I can hear myself leak"; "what color is blood?"; "eaten and dried like skin"), speak conspiratorially ("like clicks heard on the telephone"; "all my letters are in codes"), mull over enclosed religious orders ("Folded and monk-like/ It's a vulgar, hidden part of being tethered to the world"), and sometimes just free associate ("Unalloyed joy/ I thrice repeat/ Unalloyed joy/ Unalloyed joy").

Nowhere is the bizarro genius of Parquet Courts more specific than on Sunbathing Animal's two lengthiest tracks, "She's Rollin'" and "Instant Disassembly." On the former, a deadpan recitation of mundanity gets imparted with the gravity of an origin myth: "She's rolling down a hill/ She's rolling down a hill/ And I can still see her when I close my eyes." The latter chimes along an elemental riff for seven minutes with the soulful weariness of (Dylan again) "Goin' To Acapulco," although the heartache being detailed ("You did your heart no favors, darlin'/ When you taught me to crawl") gets continually punctuated with "mamasita," drawled out like a gringo ordering Potato Olé's at the Taco John's. Since they're Texans, one supposes Savage/Brown know it's actually spelled "mamacita." Perhaps that's even part of the joke. It certainly fits in with their consummate charm. Let the rest of indie fuss over studio confectionary of the highest order. Parquet Courts are willing to let you suppose they're winging it. Or as they more poetically posit, "I've prepared my defense/ Flawed as ever, in the drunkest tense."

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