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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Parquet Courts - Wide Awake! Music Album Reviews

Parquet Courts - Wide Awake! Music Album Reviews
On their fourth album, Parquet Courts enlist Danger Mouse to produce an album of joyfully absurd, danceable rock music. It is straightforward but alien, simple but endlessly referential.

As familiar as they seem (four white guys, guitars), Parquet Courts don’t have many peers. Their music is both passionate and removed, rock not as a vehicle of emotional release but the simple venting of calories. Over the course of six albums, the band has explored a sound rooted in punk and early-’70s art rock that relies on the past without seeming sentimental about it. Even their romantic material is prickly, hug-proof, more occupied by the anxiety of having feelings than the relief of surrendering to them. They are a rock band refreshingly unconcerned with what it might mean to be a rock band. Like the restless minds whose contours they mirror, a good Parquet Courts song is neither happy nor sad so much as stupidly, consumingly alive.

Their last album, 2016’s Human Performance, sounded like the work of serious young men exploring their seriousness, an outlaw vision of inner journeys and crumbling connections. Three of the band’s members had hit 30, an age at which some are struck by the delusion that they have figured out something essential about the universe. Parts of it sounded like the Velvet Underground, even Bob Dylan. But Wide Awake! marks the moment when the false wisdom subsides and one is left to concede that life is shaping up to last a long-ass time whether you know anything about it or not. One of the band’s singers, Andrew Savage, recently described it as an attempt to make a punk record you could put on at parties, the presumption being that even earnest people need space to act dumb. Parts of it remind me of “Louie Louie”; my favorite song on it is called “Freebird II.”

The album was produced by Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, whose recent clients have included Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, the Black Keys, A$AP Rocky, and a variety of other artists with whom Parquet Courts do not seem in league. Burton compresses the band into a kind of cartoon: blunt, cranked-up, surface-oriented. The album’s punky songs (“Total Football,” “Freebird II,” “Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience”) are about 80 percent yelling and feature fake crowd noise; its pretty ones (“Mardi Gras Beads,” “Death Will Bring Change,” both written by co-frontman Austin Brown) seem to have been run through a Japanese photo booth, saturated with sparkles. These are not actual moods, but the idea of moods, outsized and distorted. Savage in particular often sounds like he is drowning in words, or needs the assistance of a fire department.

The shift is natural. Despite their garage-rock overtones, Parquet Courts have always been a band about artifice, about pushing sounds to the point of hyperbole. Not the Velvet Underground, but Roxy Music, Devo, bands that presented their music less as a naturally occurring substance than the product of design, straightforward but alien, simple but endlessly referential. As with Human Performance, the broad strokes of Wide Awake! are familiar but the details are often excitingly out of place: the G-funk breakdown on “Violence,” the ’70s variety-show groove halfway through “Normalization,” the pub-rock piano on “Tenderness.” The band is moving rapidly toward a magic zone in which their sound is defined as whatever they happen to be playing at the moment, a unity achieved by attitude instead of style.

One gets high on this much past. I can’t listen to the gang choruses of “Before the Water Gets Too High” without thinking about Houston but also New Orleans, about rising water as a symbol not only of environmental catastrophe, but the sustained indifference America shows to its poor. Or Savage screaming about why society can’t afford to close an open casket on “Violence” without thinking not only of Freddie Gray in 2015 but Emmett Till 60 years earlier.

As metaphors, these are perfect: clear, precise, and yet invisible. For all of Savage’s sloganeering (part Soviet propaganda, part Barbara Kruger) there is something almost delicate about these turns, how he puts you in the mind of broader narratives without rubbing your face in them. One of the album’s most boldface lines—“What is an up-and-coming neighborhood and where is it coming from?,” screamed halfway through “Violence”—is as applicable to New York in 2018 as it was about 25 years earlier, when the New York Times declared that gentrification in the city was dead. If Wide Awake! does have a more abstract resonance, it’s somewhere in there: An experience of the past as not only alive but continuous, uncontainable, something we’d have an easier time handling if it ever seemed to stop.

At the heart of the album is a tension between the individual and the group, between the angst of freedom and the lull of dependence. Take “Freebird II,” a song Savage wrote about his mother, who struggles with homelessness and substance abuse. The music is celebratory, extroverted—less the sound of a son mourning than spring pledges hosing each other down with beer. On the song’s last line—“I feel free like you promised I’d be”—Savage is joined by a gang chorus, a dozen people shouting in barroom singalong. The paradox is simple but effective: Sometimes we feel closest to people in the moment we let them go.

By contrast, the album’s dreamiest, most internal-sounding song is “Mardi Gras Beads,” which lingers on the image of someone floating through the crowd, beads around their neck, surrounded by people but lost in a daydream. It makes sense that the band’s foundation is punk: No other style has struggled harder to reconcile the promise of community with the burning need to go it alone.

The tension is resolved, at least momentarily, on the album’s last song, “Tenderness.” As punctuation, it arrives as a sigh—warm, catchy, off its guard, everything the band ordinarily isn’t. “Nothing reminds the mind of power like the cheap odor of plastic/Leaking fumes we crave, consume, the rush it feels fantastic,” Savage sings, his voice hoarse and exhausted. “But like power turns to mold, like a junkie going cold, I need the fix of a little tenderness.” You can almost hear him ripping away from the hug, then turning reluctantly back.

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