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Parquet Courts continue to amaze and confuse, even when playing it relatively straight

"Human Performance"

Release date: 08 April 2016
6.5/10
Parquet Courts Human Performance jpg
06 April 2016, 17:00 Written by Ryan Lunn
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As a result of the critical, and later commercial, success they received, New York stoners Parquet Courts left the punk scene behind to tour the world, but the punk ethos never really left them behind - their post-Light Up Gold output, bar 2014’s exceptional Sunbathing Animal, has been deliberately difficult.

The most obvious example of this was last year’s Monastic Living EP, which came as backlash to the omnipresent association of Strokes-like catchiness and ended up sounding like the blueprints of Bloc Party’s debut album, Silent Alarm, being brutally castrated by Swans at their most experimental.

Monastic Living’s sole purpose was to challenge what you thought you knew about Parquet Courts, and despite not doing much else, that’s what it achieved. And that’s what they’ve done again by releasing Human Performance, their most coherent, rhythmic and, crucially, accessible album yet – they wanted to make you hate them with Monastic Living, but Human Performance makes you want to fall in love with them again. And largely, it works.

Human Performance is Parquet Courts at their most recognisable, with lead signer Andrew Savage’s exhausted, semi-spoken vocals paired with dazed throwback guitars reminiscent of early Wire. There’s still a sort of DIY charm rooted in the inconsistency of the 14 tracks presented – they’re catchy without being polished, yet creative without being experimental.

Album opener "Dust" captures the futility of household chores, while simultaneously dusting off the Light Up Gold-era Parquet Courts’ playfulness and accessibility for what, in Human Performance, could be one last joyride. In the best way possible, Parquet Courts are back to sounding like the contemporary equivalent of Pavement for people that never heard of Pavement.

Much like Light Up Gold, there’s a fresh wit seething through the core of Human Performance, complimenting Andrew Savages’ deadpan delivery – the lyrics, as a whole, are Savage at his sharpest and most intriguing, from "Pathos Prairie"’s “I commit crimes and call them mistakes” and "It’s Gunna Happen"’s “I’m not an imposter” to "Keep It Even"’s simple “You’ve got to keep it even, even when you’re uptight”. In the age of meaningless lyrics in alternative music, "Two Dead Cops" even borders on the politically relevant!

At first glance, lead single "Berlin Got Blurry" comes across like it should be the wise older brother of Light Up Gold’s fan favourite "Stoned and Starving", but it’s much more than that – slurred-yet-sober, Savage sounds witty (“No one’s falling for that nice guy bullshit/they waited years you can wait one night”), yet observational (“Crotch of a rollie inside yellow fingers/nothing lasts but nearly everything lingers in life”) and it's immediately one of the album's standout tracks.

For a band that, on paper, appears to be equipped with such limited resources in terms of where they could take their sound, Parquet Courts, no matter how listenable or unlistenable it ends up being, can be surprisingly diverse. It’s a testament to them that what is arguably their best song to-date, "Instant Disassembly", from Sunbathing Animal, is a song that clocks in at almost eight minutes and still doesn’t feel long enough. On Human Performance, they try their hand at the elongated song again with all the six-and-a-half minutes of "One Man, One City", but to less resounding results. While it does, in places, drag and, occasionally even fidget, it comes as a reminder that Parquet Courts are no strangers to pushing their sound to the limit of both ability and accessibility.

Despite the fact that Human Performance is the New York four piece’s most listenable album to date, for some reason it’s hard to love it as much Light Up Gold. The two-chord slouch of the band’s brilliant second album sounded imperfect and effortless, but that same scruffy nonchalant spirit seems lost here - perhaps the band’s recent signing to indie titans Rough Trade warranted them with releasing a more professional-sounding and mature release.

Parquet Courts are the busiest so-called slackers in the indie-rock business, with Human Performance being their fifth album in as many years, as well as two EPs. But what the other releases do so well is that they either hit the spot hard or deliberately miss for effect, but this time round the result seems to be somewhere in between.

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