Album Of The Week: Parquet Courts Sunbathing Animal
What a great day for punk rock. My real favorite album of the week is Fucked Up’s bleary, anxious, grown-up hardcore masterwork Glass Boys, a grand and surging piece of work that I can’t write about because they’re my friends. (Our own Chris DeVille did well with that album in his Premature Evaluation, anyway.) This is also the week of Bob Mould’s Beauty & Ruin, a stripped-down and straightahead collection of pogo-worthy songcraft from one of our great old masters, a guy who’s on a remarkable late-career hot streak. Priests, a D.C. band with a ton of promise, come out blasting with their wound-up and tough Bodies And Control And Money And Power EP, which you should really check out. (Another of today’s best albums has nothing to do with punk rock. It’s Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s regal solo debut Black Hours, which I came very, very close to naming as this week’s AOTW.) And then there’s the New York band Parquet Courts, whose tense and tangled and conversational take on punk rock wriggles and buzzes and sprawls, getting under your skin in all sorts of ways, on Sunbathing Animal, the band’s second album.
Before I get any deeper into this piece, I’m going to say something, and you’re probably not going to like it. I think Pavement sucks. I have always felt this way. It’s not a complete and sweeping hatred; I like a grand total of four of the band’s songs (“Summer Babe,” “Cut Your Hair,” “Stereo,” “The Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence”). And there’s personal baggage there, too: The $8 I dropped on a Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain cassette back in the day (when I was really hoping for more songs like “Cut Your Hair”) the sloppy and lackadaisical Lollapalooza 1995 set that sent me scrambling to see Redman on the second stage after a couple of songs. But my whole thing with Pavement has always been this: They sounded bored and uninvolved, the noise coming from their guitars coming off like the scratches and skronks of fuckers who couldn’t be bothered to get it right. That tossed-off quality is what led many, many people to fall in love with them. It bugged the shit out of me. I bring this up because Pavement is the one comparison-point that will not leave Parquet Courts. Other bands’ names come up in reviews — the Velvet Underground, Television, the Fall — but thanks to the sidelong drawls of dual frontmen Andrew Savage and Austin Brown, plenty of critics hear that same sloppy quality in Parquet Courts that they once heard in Pavement. I don’t think that’s fair or right. Parquet Courts are tight in ways that Pavement never were. Their songs are tense and wiry and frantic, driven by a rigid sense of purpose rather than an urge to wander. They’re a punk band, and Pavement couldn’t have been a punk band if they’d tried.
Sunbathing Animal is even more of a punk album than its predecessor, 2012’s Light Up Gold. The fast songs here, like the title track and “Duckin’ And Dodgin’,” explode like nothing the band has ever done here, to the point where it might make sense to add the Buzzcocks to the list of bands you need to namecheck in Parquet Courts reviews. But even on the longer songs, the ones where the band gets expansive and skronky and starts fucking around with oblique tunings and discordant notes, they keep things moving forward, with half an eye on structure. Take, for example, the six-and-a-half minute “She’s Rollin’,” which, with its frenetic harmonica squeals and its simultaneous angry-spider guitar solos, threatens to break into pieces by the end. That skronk-fest is messy, by design, and it comes as a logical end to a song that gradually frays its way to nothingness. And it comes sandwiched right in between two fast, hard, jackhammer-paced songs, a deliberate and necessary stretch before the next sprint. “Deliberate” is a word that comes up on our own Ryan Leas’s new Parquet Courts feature; the band wanted to make sure nothing on the album would lead them toward stoner-slacker caricature the way Light Up Gold’s great “Stoned & Starving” might’ve done. And that attention to detail pays off. Sunbathing Animal might superficially fit into someone’s preconceived idea of lo-fi DIY warehouse-rock, but it’s an intricately plotted and structured album, one that doesn’t make a big point of its planned-out nature but shows its effects nonetheless.
Lyrically, too, the band is a long way from the snarked-out post-grad munchie-seeking mentality we might’ve once imagined we heard in them. I’m not to the point yet where I can distinguish Savage and Brown’s singing and songwriting voices from one another, but both of them do vivid, pointed things with their words on Sunbathing Animal. The lyrics here are hard to parse, but they’re not inside jokes; they’re sharp evocations of mood and place. Their idea of character-sketching is something like this: “He spit when he spoke and sang like a wasp nest.” And they’re great at finding unlikely syllable-combinations that might mean nothing or everything and sound amazing regardless of meaning: “Lady Macbeth, rock me mama, like my back ain’t got no bone / Like clicks heard on the telephone / Like a sudden unhinged moan / That leaks out from your broken structure like a wall of unbound stone.” In that Leas feature, those two frontmen talk about the blues as a formative influence, and there are moments on the album where they find idiosyncratic but precise ways to describe certain difficult truths about the moment we’re all living through: “It’s a vulgar, hidden part of being tethered to the world right now / Spending all my dollars to remain a member, nothing in my eyes but a scowl.”
And there are messy, personal feelings in there, too, sentiments that don’t immediately reveal themselves, that stay hidden until you bother to scrutinize them. That title track sounds like a lightspeed rant until you sit down with the lyric sheet, and then it starts to look like a meditation on the balance of power in relationships, the flooding relief in letting go of your willpower. But there are touching and minute details in there, like in this scene: “I’ve hung out at your service jobs / I’ve watched you wait and be ignored / Blend into the backgrounds as they sipped what you poured / I cling to your perimeter as you float in their margins, oblivious to being stung / Their satellite becomes my sun.” If I’m reading all that right, this is a love song, and a great one. If someone like, say, Mark Lanegan, someone with the sort of singing voice we’re conditioned to hear profundity in, had song these guys’ lyrics, they’d become the sort of things that we’d use in Twitter bios or yearbook quotes. But it’s that combination of factors — poetry in an unrushed couch-drawl, rigor in an expansive sprawl-out — that makes Sunbathing Animal stand out, even in a week as crammed with great music as this one.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Fucked Up’s vast and explosive Glass Boys.
• Hamilton Leithauser’s distinguished and whiskey-dipped Black Hours.
• Bob Mould’s sharp, pummeling Beauty & Ruin.
• Klaxons’ dance-informed psych-rocker Love Frequency.
• Miranda Lambert’s take-no-shit Platinum.
• Andrew Bird’s Handsome Family tribute LP Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
• Die Antwoord’s reliably gonzo Donker Mag.
• Gold-Bears’ giddy indie-popper Dalliance.
• Blood Orange’s Palo Alto soundtrack.
• Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s mid-’00s postcard Only Run.
• Echo & The Bunnymen’s sweeping, dramatic Meteorites.
• Peter Murphy’s theatrically gloomy Lion.
• Unsane side project the Cutthroats 9’s bleak and noisy Dissent.
• Soundtrack master Brian Reitzell’s solo endeavor Auto Music.
• Melvins frontman Buzz Osborne’s solo move This Machine Kills Artists.
• Darkest Era’s soaring Celtic metaller Severance.
• Jena Malone-fronted duo the Shoe’s I’m Okay.
• 50 Cent’s comeback attempt Animal Ambition.
• Priests’ Bodies And Control And Money And Power EP.
• Julianna Barwick’s Rosabi EP.
• Martyn’s Forgiveness EP.