Parquet Courts ‘Sunbathing Animal’ – Review

29 Jun

Parquet Courts are an aging hipster’s wet dream. They exert a reasonable amount of passion and energy but don’t expect their audience to do any hard work, their sound is referential and their lyrics are pseudo intellectual. Parquet Courts are well aware of all this because Parquet Courts are almost excruciatingly self aware. There’s probably nothing you could say about this band that they haven’t already thought, and over-thought, themselves. Every inch of album number three ‘Sunbathing Animal’ has been calculated and scrutinised by a band determined to present itself in just the right way. However, it’s an album that manages to be a lot of fun, almost in spite of itself.

Parquet Courts went through the 21st century blog hype cycle with their last album ‘Light Up Gold’ (inital sky-high praise followed swiftly by an almighty backlash) and credibly distanced themselves from all the labels being pinned on them. Like the D.I.Y indie-rock band they are, they barely caught their breath between that album, the mandatory e.p, and this. Their aim seems to be a difficult one; distance themselves from the rather tiresome Pavement and Pixies comparisons at the same time as ironing out the sound they want – which just so happens to sound a lot like Pavement and Pixies. They’re trying to establish their own style whilst wanting to sound like a very specific type of traditional indie rock band. It’s difficult. At what point does the lack of originality become a problem?

Parquet Courts put that question on ice for now, simply by being so damn good at doing at what they do. The band’s sound has evolved somewhat since the ramshackle ditties of ‘Light Up Gold’ but there is a clear through line between that and this. The dry and bleeding guitar tones are still present and correct, and they still use feedback as their secret fifth weapon, but if the last album was lit up gold, then this one has a lot more shade. After the storming and direct ‘Black and White’ we get the charmingly laid back ‘Dear Ramona’, which tells a tale of a mysterious lady who seems to take pleasure in doing the opposite of what is expected of her. After the rocking ‘Always Back in Town’ we get the sluggish ‘She’s Rolling’ and after the frantic title track, and a 30 second interlude, we get the epic ‘Instant disassembly’ where Savage repeats anxiously ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, it’s hard to exhale’. During the album’s second half there are perhaps too many of these plodding mid tempo songs but the admirable intent was to expand the band’s horizons and dig out new possibilities – to an extent they’ve been successful. It goes back to the idea of trying to carve out space in a scene and genre that has very defined ideals and rules. It’s about finding freedom whilst staying captive.

This is a theme of the record. On ‘Sunbathing Animal’ Parquet courts spend a lot of time weighing up the choice between captivity and freedom. Is freedom always freeing and Is there comfort to be found in captivity? On the title track Andrew Savage is at once in thrall to and helpless to prevent the wonder and agony of being in the possession of somebody else. On ‘Always Back In Town’ the monotonous routine of being a lower tier indie rock band is expressed by Savage’s weary, droning voice and the repetitive guitar lick that sheds extra light on the nagging hook when it arrives; ‘I’m always packing my bags, I’m always back in town, according to you.’ Even supposedly free and wild rock bands become burdened with and bored by routine. Throughout the album the band ruminate on conflicting desires and confusing contradictions, making this an album that poses interesting questions and provides very few answers.

All this makes it rather difficult to pin down Parquet Court’s tone. Just when are they being ironic and when are they being honest? The band have been called emotionally unavailable, but I think that’s a slightly misjudged observation. Sure, the conversational singing style masks true feeling in layers of irony and mystique, and their obtuse lyricism misdirects your empathy, but there are real glimpses of sadness and longing here that cut through the reflective surface. On ‘She’s rolling’ Savage can still see a girl ‘in the back of my mind.’ On ‘Instant Disassembly’ he begs a Mamasita to ‘hold me now as I sink.’ ‘Black and White’ speaks of real internal struggle, whilst ‘Sunbathing Animal’ is about being completely helpless and unable to escape your unwanted emotions. Even self-aware hipsters have feelings. Yes ‘Sunbathing Animal’ is a serious, serious album but there is emotion, and humour, to be found. Despite the musical advances this is probably the area in which Parquet Courts have made the most progress. They remain a calculated, intellectual, oh-so-cool indie rock band but there are glimpses of real soul here. If they let their guard down a little more, and continue to expand their sound in weird directions, I think they have potential to make an astonishing album.

8/10

 

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