Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal

Parquet Courts are back. Well, having never evaded the Sauron-eye of the Anglo-American hype-machine…


Parquet Courts are back. Well, having never evaded the Sauron-eye of the Anglo-American hype-machine since their major-label debut (last year’s reissue of 2012’s magnificent Light Up Gold) the Brooklynites have not ‘returned’ as much as they’ve birthed a strong follow-up under the pressurising gaze of the public. Sunbathing Animal comes just a few months after the Tally All The Things That You Broke EP, and it shows. This is the exact same Parquet Courts, as likely to undermine the ” target=”_blank”>glorification of conscription as they are to over-think a choice between ” target=”_blank”>roasted peanuts and liquorice, showing the other side of the coin. While this notion doesn’t seem revelatory in and of itself, its context – in the form of the act’s rapid rise – is illuminating.

In the past year, Parquet Courts have been interviewed by nearly every single music site of widespread significance in the northern-hemisphere. The common threads of these interviews – coyly volcanic excitement of the publications aside – are the unashamed parallels drawn with everyone from Wire to the Strokes. And although there may be some truth to the accusations of vaguely Strokesian guitars and Pink Flag-type song structures, the outspoken duo of the quartet, Andrew Savage (vocals/guitars) and Austin Brown (guitars), have typically been swift to respectfully acknowledge but subtly wave aside these comparisons.

This is not to say that the band are hesitant to recognise their influences, nor are they under any illusions that their post-punk experiments aren’t peppered with traces of artistic lineage. Moreover, Savage’s attitude and deadpan half-croon/half-preach does most convincingly carry the torch of triumphant slackerdom for this generation, following the impossibly cool truant-trajectory of Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman and Stephen Malkmus. Even Malkmus himself revealed to Pitchfork that he mistook Parquet Courts for Pavement upon hearing their music for the first time in some hip clothing store. That people will inevitably find familiarities in their music is something with which they’ve come to terms, but they reticently and sincerely yearn to be judged solely on the merits of their work as an extension of their identity. They believe in their own art, which pays off in the recordings. And as much as I might be shooting myself in the foot, their thoroughly principled self-awareness – coupled with a distaste for comparison-based sensationalism – does bear resemblance to the attitude of a certain New York band prior to the release of Is This It circa 2001.

The three excellent singles, ‘Sunbathing Animal’, ‘Black and White’ and ‘Instant Dissassembly’ all told fairly different stories and hinted at greater eclecticism, and perhaps more; something huge that would satiate all the hype-hounds. Alas, approaching the LP with this mindset admittedly produces an underwhelming first impression. Despite what the title suggests, everything isn’t as warm and sparkly as anticipated, nor are the adventures long-lived. Yet the fault lies not with the work. Rather, it sits with an erroneous, expectation-built starting point. That said, it’s difficult not to be dazzled at first glance by the aptly titled, krautrock-slanted ‘She’s Rolling’, an otherwise smooth meditation coloured by cacophonous harmonica musings in its latter half. Or to appreciate the dynamics of ‘Ducking and Dodgin’ that skip the Pixies and call out a further two decades to Black Monk Time.

An open mind is this record’s most valuable interpretative canon, but even then, it takes a while to get used to opener ‘Bodies Made Of’, which doesn’t quite match up to neither the inspiring benchmark nor the titular veracity of ‘Master Of My Craft’. The song sets a peculiarly dark tone, thanks to Savage’s childishly cryptic synopsis of humanoid construction. A similarly graphic motif pops up in the playful, confident jam, ‘What Color Is Blood’. Second single ‘Black and White’ takes the best things about Light Up Gold, condenses them and tweaks them to mould the definitive Parquet Courts cut on this record. 

The Richman comparisons don’t stop with Savage’s delivery: like the Modern Lovers, this band is best enjoyed with a lyrics sheet. The hardcore-fuelled title-track displays some of their most erudite, intricate lyrics to date. Gone are the writers-block days of ‘Borrowed Time’; inspiration was evidently a non-issue. As something of a repurposed ‘N. Dakota’, the buoyant wit of ‘Dear Ramona’ bears further testimony to this. The song displays Savage/Brown’s knack for conveying humour-shrouded emotion via a smart-ass delivery. Similar off-beat narrative prowess is shown-off on ‘Raw Milk’, providing an engrossing account of an undisclosed ‘she’. Closing gracefully with ‘Into the Garden’, the woozy, two-minute instrumental that precedes the vocals provides enough time for Savage to pluck up enough Dutch-courage for his most vulnerable, genuine singing on the album – and it’s this, rather than the lyrics, that’s affecting.

Songs stretching into four-minute territory are lengthy considering Parquet Courts’ abundantly sub-three-minute repertoire. But Sunbathing Animal’s tracks are lengthier and more substantial. ‘She’s Rolling’ clocks in at six minutes, while the singularly special ‘Instant Dissassembly’ – the album’s emotional heart that’s similarly light on its feet –glides past seven. Conversely, there are tracks that flirt with the one-minute mark. But whereas short numbers proved to be some of the headiest of the bunch on Light Up Gold (See ‘Careers in Combat’, ‘Light Up Gold II’), Sunbathing Animal’s serve as interludes. The atonal guitar refrain of ‘Vienna II’ serves to palate-cleanse ahead of the jagged, repetitive ‘Always Back in Town’, while ‘Up All Night’ is a handsome, vocal-less bridge between the comparatively anarchic title-track and ‘Instant Disassembly’. 

The sound of Sunbathing Animal is unmistakably Parquet Courts. The feel and format have been altered somewhat, but the attitude and personality have not. For its glorious standouts and tolerable oddities, this album is not quite “safe”, nor is it a monolithic display of this band’s full potential – the shape of which they will realise in their own time. Instead, it’s a good body of work that will serve as a proud notch on the belt of what will hopefully become an extensive and fruitful discography. Parquet Courts don’t care about the spotlight; they care about improving their craft.  As admirable as it is to reach for the stars, they’ve recognised that they alone will know when to do so.

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