[4 June 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor
The anxiety of influence can weigh heavily on any emerging artist in any artform, but it seems like a bigger burden to bear when it comes indie rock. The genre’s best acts, though, never let you see them sweat it, as is the case with Parquet Courts. It’s that kind of attitude and approach that Parquet Courts share with the bands they most obviously bring to mind, beyond whatever finer-point similarities you want to draw based on their meandering guitars, diffident vocals, and oblique lyrics. Maybe some post-‘90s indie bands have gotten the shrugging swagger right, some the wise-guy tone, others the unvarnished chops, but it’s hard to think of any recent band that’s got all these components working like these NYC transplants do right now. So when Stephen Malkmus, of all people, mentioned to Rolling Stone that he “was in this hamburger place [one] day in Portland—they were playing the Parquet Courts record and I thought it was Pavement,” he wasn’t being dismissive so much as extending a continuum to connect the up-and-coming act to his own.
In that sense, Parquet Courts prove innovation and novelty for novelty’s sake can be overrated, something any number of the canonical groups they’re getting mentioned with can attest to. To put it another way, isn’t it better to stake your claim as part of a lineage that links you to Pavement, to the Fall, all the way back to the Velvet Underground than not? Derivative or original, that’s what Sunbathing Animal does for Parquet Courts, flashing the potential that at least gets ‘em on the track to maybe joining such vaunted company one day. Tense, jittery opening number “Bodies Made Of” basically makes those ambitions known right off the bat, its coiled riffs grabbing you with an undercover catchiness like it’s off a long lost Slanted and Enchanted-era EP. Even if guitarist/singer Austin Brown’s rhythmic scatting and breathless, voice-cracking high notes on it have a déjà-vu-like quality to them, there’s still an undeniably visceral quality to him cryptically howling, “Bodies made of slugs and guts!,” that feels current and urgent. While Malkmus couldn’t have been referring to “Dear Ramona”, it’s an indie-pop ditty that could’ve sauntered right off Wowee Zowee with its shimmering chords and languorous twang. Yet despite the strong family resemblances, Sunbathing Animal doesn’t actually ever feel like it’s a nostalgic knock-off of what’s fondly remembered, rather something that’s creating new memories all its own.
If anything, Parquet Court’s cut-and-paste aesthetic is working with a smaller margin of error, since taking a formula that’s been done before and making it worth caring about again don’t get the benefit of the doubt that trying something new does. That’s a challenge that co-frontman Andrew Savage seems to acknowledge, telling Grantland, “I still think there’s some new tricks you can teach the old dog.” And indeed, “Vienna II” pulls off those new tricks, its skeletal post-punk riffs and snarky call-and-response chants bobbing with such bristling energy that it feels like an up-to-date sequel of some archival Fall song called “Vienna I”. More proficiently and cleverly, the title track starts with a furious strum, yet somehow brings out a Velvets-like drone in its noisy, frenetic racket, the interplay between Brown and Savage’s guitars creating their own vernacular and syntax from a long-used language. Indeed, it’s in ingenious recombinations rather than hit-or-miss invention that Parquet Courts’ imagination is most inspired, like the way the instrumental interlude “Up All Night” makes you wonder what the Strokes might’ve been like with Krautrock influences.
So even though Parquet Courts strings together so many familiar signifiers, Sunbathing Animal never comes off like a rote exercise, since its collage-like aesthetic is arranged and framed by the group’s own indie intuition. Indeed, there’s too much spontaneity and instinctive play happening on Sunbathing Animal for Parquet Courts to simply be riffing off anyone else and not be going something of their own vision. In particular, they’re good at following where their stream-of-consciousness guitar melodies take them, then somehow molding them into self-contained pieces with distinct shape and form. “Black and White” moves from jittery hooks to feedback-y noise but manages to wrap itself up in a thrashy pop package, while the boogie-ing shuffle of “What Color Is Blood” sets up then settles in behind the agitated cadence of Savage’s ragged rhyming. “Raw Milk” noodles around to Morse code plucking, before getting down to business and rounding into form once Savage’s vocals come into focus. And Parquet Courts are also getting better at maintaining a sense of structure even when they stretch out their compositions, like on the mid-tempo sprawl of “She’s Rollin”, which does just as the title suggests with a snaking guitar line that picks up steam only to give way to a deliberate solo and an unexpected harmonica jam that ends up completing the mix.
When you think about some more, maybe it’s that Parquet Courts’ uncanny knack for pitch-perfect indie formalism makes it too easy to chalk up their intangibles to revivalism rather than innate creativity. Yet at the heart of what defines Parquet Courts’ songs is the their own take on minimalist repetition, the particular way they explore and elaborate on simple patterns to spin them out into something more. That’s what stands out about Sunbathing Animal, whether you’re talking about a jittery garage nugget like “Always Back in Town” or a more steadily unfolding piece like “She’s Rollin”. But it’s on “Instant Disassembly” where Parquet Courts show how far their back-to-the-basics gameplan can take them, with a loping, lolling guitar line that sounds like an expansive third Velvet Underground album melody, just stripped down for parts and reconstructed into something all its own as it gains momentum, slowly but steadily.
Maybe it’s just that there’s now enough distance from the ‘90s indie wave that old is the new new again, but there’s no denying Parquet Courts have a knack for making what’s familiar and done feel like you want more of what you already had enough of. If Parquet Courts can keep going at this rate, it won’t be a matter of who or what they remind you of, since whoever’s in the next generation will be trying to make their own Sunbathing Animal, as if it were part of the tradition all along.