The Upshot: Transcending its past, the NYC-via-Texas quartet blends the backbone of rock ‘n’ roll—simple song structure, basic-level playing skills—with the clever street patter and sharp observation that made NYC acts like the Velvet Underground, Television and the Ramones so iconic in the first place.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
If you watched the first season of Vinyl, the HBO series fetishizing the 1970s New York City music scene, your takeaway was likely the opposite of what the show’s creators intended: If rock isn’t dead, somebody please kill it before it resembles this show’s Madame Tussauds waxworks.
Essentially a soap opera dusted with cocaine and tribute bands (stand-ins for David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Bob Marley and the New York Dolls all make appearances), the series—inexplicably green lighted for a second season—follows the tribulations of the fictitious American Century Records label as it staggers from one self-inflicted financial crisis to another in the early 70s. Its founder, Richie Finestra—played gamely by Bobby Cannavale, whose season as Gyp Rosetti revived a moribund Boardwalk Empire (also written by Terrence Winter)—blends Hit Men slime with rockist zealotry until it turns the heady early-70s firmament that birthed punk, disco and hip-hop into a caricature.
In the tone-setting premiere, Finestra has his mind blown at a Dolls’ show so epic that it collapses the club—though the metaphor alone could’ve done that. From then on, at least between lines of blow, Finestra puts American Century—reborn as Alibi Records—on a holy crusade to find other bands just as gob-smacking. In an oft-repeated slogan with all the subtlety of Soviet propaganda, Finestra fires up the troops by asking them to “Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Made you want to dance. Or fuck. Or go out and kick somebody’s ass!”
The alleged saviors emerge in an outfit called The Nasty Bits, a four-piece anachronism constructed from bits of NYC protopunk unknowns Jack Ruby, punk icon Richard Hell (a consultant to, and later critic of, the series) and the Sex Pistols—this last courtesy of lead singer Kip Stevens, played by executive producer Mick Jagger’s son, James, a sneering British guttersnipe with a junk habit. Finestra and his surrogates immediately begin sanding off the band’s raw edges, an irony somehow lost on the show’s creators. Still, the first season culminates in another epic Dolls gig, only this time it’s the Nasty Bits that steal the show—despite playing just one song. It’s a stunt, though, a bit of Malcolm McLaren Filthy Lucre-hood instigated by a Finestra phone call to the cops. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated, indeed.
Of the show’s many unintended ironies, there’s one that’s especially harmful to the cause it allegedly espouses. Viewers of Vinyl essentially have curators hectoring them about missing out on this magical moment—as if the present couldn’t possibly provide musical experiences as visceral. It’s the same era-centric arrogance—eventually enshrined by other waxworks like the 70s Broadway nostalgiagasm Beatlemania and the cinematic séance, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—that birthed punk, hip-hop and disco in the first place.
It’s testament to both the democratic form and its most enthusiastic practitioners that rock ‘n’ roll still even exists 60 years after the fad refused to evaporate, as nearly everyone predicted and expected. But it’s been nearly 50 since The Who first declared it dead, and another 20-plus since hip-hop, pop and commercial country relegated it to also-ran status in sales and influence. Still, new generations of kids yearn for that cultural and personal catharsis—the irresistible blend of libidinous abandon and tribal bonding—that rock ‘n’ roll built its reputation on and, on occasion, still delivers.
One band in the here-and-now whose DNA roots trace to some of the acts that Vinyl wants to immortalize, is Parquet Courts. The NYC-via-Texas quartet blends the backbone of rock ‘n’ roll—simple song structure, basic-level playing skills—with the clever street patter and sharp observation that made NYC acts like the Velvet Underground, Television and the Ramones so iconic in the first place. No surprise, then, that the band’s fourth full-length (fifth if you include Parkay Quarts’ Content Nausea) appears on Rough Trade, the label where the next generation of smart, arty punkers—Wire, the Fall, Swell Maps—kept the flame alive.
If those links were obvious in Parquet Courts’ previous work, the new Human Performance begins to alter the band’s trajectory without sacrificing the modern take it brings to those roots. The songs on Human Performance may lack the sheer velocity that “Master of My Craft” (from 2012’s Light up Gold) or the title track from 2014’s Sunbathing Animal gave the band’s previous releases, and instead trades it for a more nuanced songwriting palette. The tempos are slower, the guitar muted (by comparison), and new elements like Latin rhythms and various keyboards make their debuts on an LP that took a year to make.
The opener, “Dust,” is on its face a companion piece to Sunbathing‘s “Bodies” or “Stoned and Starving” off Light Up Gold—a simple infectious riff that’s a conveyance for a fun bit of lyrics nonsense that, with full-LP context, turn out not to be such nonsense after all. The pace slows here, and the song trades in guitar feedback for keyboard touches. But the chorus—”Dust is everywhere/Sweep!”—offers a metaphor for what Parquet Courts pull off throughout Human Performance: the songs are an emotional house cleaning that, left unsaid or un-swept, would “sneak in ignored” and stack up until they suffocate.
The title cut follows, with Andrew Savage turning that keen observational eye inward—shorn of irony or distance this time—to chronicle the collapse of a relationship and its haunted residue. The song veers between the verses’ loping tempo and furious blasts of shouted choruses, setting up the dichotomy between the indulgence of remembering—”Nothing moves without drifting into a memory”—and the point when the “witness and know, fracture and hurt” curdles into mere “Human Performance.”
Examining the duality of our motivations and emotions elevates Parquet Courts above most of their peers. Not only do they avoid the Vinyl-style embalming of their source material, but the songs transcend the romanticized hipster baggage that the city—and Brooklyn in particular—currently carries with it. New York City intrudes, of course, but mostly as urban setting and certainly not as hipster’s paradise. The LP’s fiercest track, “Two Dead Cops,” is a straight-up recounting taken at Buzzcocks speed of the killing of two policeman not far from Savage’s apartment; “Captive of the Sun”—whose quasi-rap and echo-y noises would’ve fit nicely next to Combat Rock‘s weirder, more interesting moments—captures the “skull shakin’ cadence of the J-train” and “car-honk duet” cacophony that’s “in the key of New York.”
“Berlin,” built around a seductive western Telecaster riff, pumping Farfisa, and a cantering beat, is a NYC love-song by subtraction, as Savage’s narrator questions the joys of traveler anonymity, noting that “Teutonic frankness” alarms because “it tastes so familiar and wild.” Similarly, the bongos-accented “One Man, No City” confirms that self-consciousness is more sleight-of-hand than wisdom-gift, no matter the locale: “‘Cogito ergo sum’ people say/But think again, ’cause I have no faith/I find building blocks filled with nothin’.” The song also sounds, at times, remarkably like vintage Talking Heads.
Comparisons to Pavement, which band members swat away regularly, aren’t likely to vanish thanks to slacker-friendly tracks like the homage to a shuttered Chinese restaurant (“I Was Just Here,” robotic enough to also recall Devo) and Austin Brown’s meta-apropos deadpan on “Keeping It Even.” But those claims were “smart songwriter”-reductive in the first place. And these two cuts are the closest to filler on Human Performance anyway, though the subject matter suits an LP that wraps up thematically as neatly as it opens—especially given that the subject matter is essentially confusion.
And what a finale it is, too. After the stark realism punch of “Two Dead Cops,” the penultimate up-tempo downer “Pathos Prairie” role-calls a litany of self-deceptions like an accusatory chest-poke—”The past like a servant that bends for our sake/Into the lines we tell it to trace.” But the Loaded-like LP-ender lullaby “It’s Gonna Happen” concedes that those lies we tell ourselves are survival mechanisms likely to “happen every single time.” Rather than clever Malkmus snark, it reads instead as something like grace and, if not forgiveness, at least a measure of understanding. For a punk band, that makes sense—the music matters only when it means something in the here and now. Only when it’s alive, and not a caricature. Only when it’s not embalmed with the past.
DOWNLOAD: “Captive of the Sun,” “Two Dead Cops”