WIDE AWAKE! by Parquet Courts
Genre: Art Punk
Favorite Tracks: “Almost Had To Start a Fight/In And Out Of Patience,” “Freebird II,” “Wide Awake,” “Extinction,” “Tenderness”
Since they bum-rushed the rock scene with LIGHT UP GOLD in 2012, there hasn’t been a more consistent and dependable group making rock music than Parquet Courts. In a six-year window we’ve seen the group slowly mold and evolve from being stoned and starving to gorged and inventive. From back-to-back record releases in 2014 that saw them explore everything from heat-stroked punk and lumbering and listless rock ballads on SUNBATHING ANIMAL to a sweaty Southern exploration of information overload on CONTENT NAUSEA, through more experimental works like the jarring and dissonant noise project MOSAIC LIVING, or their psychy team up with composer Daniele Luppi on last year’s MILANO, no band has been as low-key prolific as the New York by-way-of Texas quartet.
And yet, I had to hold my reservations regarding WIDE AWAKE!, the band’s latest album. When you see Danger Mouse is producing a record, you have to take a deep breath and hope for the best. The former Gnarls Barkley member and longtime rock producer has become an indie rock horse whisperer, waxing, polishing, and shining a band’s sound until it becomes palatable to the masses, frequently in ways that lose what made the band seem interesting in the first place. Were Parquet Courts going to be the next Black Keys or Portugal the Man? Was now the moment when they’d make a leap from the unwashed small club masses to being played on “alternative” rock radio next to Nirvana and Foster the People?
Well, despite what Ellen might be telling you, Parquet Courts remain mostly of the people and for the people—assuming those people are music dorks and punk nerds. Like an immovable force meeting an unstoppable object, Parquet Courts are simply too strange and explosive an act to be truly tamed. While Danger Mouse does his level best at sequestering some of the group’s odder musical quirks, he still manages to make WIDE AWAKE! their most accessible album yet while never quite sacrificing what made the band so endearing in the first place.
Let’s just consider that single they played for, say it with me, daytime talk show host Ellen fucking DeGeneres. How did that happen? WHY did it happen? After a few spins of WIDE AWAKE!, it’s impossible not to consider the title track the catchiest song on the record, but even being the most pop accessible, it’s a jump to see how your stay-at-home mom and average in-between-classes college student are going to be wowed enough to consider “Wide Awake” a true earworm banger. Still, this thing remains true to the band’s oddness while making it okay for daytime TV, which itself seems like a herculean accomplishment. It has a funky guitar line and whistles that toot along to solid percussion and an insanely fun afro beat—in a different world this instrumental is being used in a Soderbergh heist film. (Side Note: “Berlin Got Blurry” almost would work on THE VIEW or LIVE WITH RYAN AND KELLY but most of the band’s singles—“Sunbathing Animals,” “Borrowed Time,” “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth”—would be surreal to say the least.)
“Wide Awake” isn’t a radio hit, but it’s probably as close as Parquet Courts were ever gonna get to having one, and that compromise between band and producer pays dividends across the whole record. On previous albums, tracks like “Extinction” or the back half of “Almost Had To Start a Fight/In And Out Of Patience” would likely have devolved into grimier, more frizzled art rock, yet here they embrace a really clear and punctuated sound where the guitars cut cleanly and the drums fall forward like a roller coaster ride. Closer “Tenderness” is a piano led bayou stomp, the kind that I’m not sure presents itself as such with a different producer. Danger Mouse took a lot of the shadowed songwriting on the band’s last full effort, HUMAN PERFORMANCE, and gave it light here, and while it might not be for daytime TV moms, some of these tracks get pretty close.
And even in spite of that cleaner sound, this is still a very recognizable version of Parquet Courts. A. Savage still gets to do his signature ranting, and he makes full use of “Violence,” where he yells, “Violence is the fruit of unreached understanding that flower from the lips of scoundrels / It is a forest so dense and rooted in our past / It tempts us to become lost in its darkness,” amongst other acute and deeply troubling commentaries on our world at large. Their Minutemen channeling reaches its most natural conclusion yet on “Normalization,” true DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME worship for the 21st century. And “NYC Observation” and opener “Total Football,” among others, are tried and true Parquet Courts songs with their racing beats and downhill guitar playing.
I should’ve known better than to doubt that WIDE AWAKE! would come together. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Savage was quoted as saying “The ethos behind every Parquet Courts record is that there needs to be change for the better, and the best way to tackle that is to step out of one’s comfort zone. I personally liked the fact that I was writing a record that indebted to punk and funk and Brian’s a pop producer who’s made some very polished records. I liked that it didn’t make sense.” Parquet Courts have spent the better part of six years making rock albums that don’t necessarily make sense, none more than WIDE AWAKE! Yet that self-awareness to push boundaries which has maybe hindered them in the past works beautifully here. Even if the band doesn’t necessarily explode with the same ferocity or satisfy in their jagged roughness, it’s a different overall tone for them and it works. Here’s to another six years of not making sense.