Review: Parquet Courts are in the groove on terrific new LP ‘Sympathy For Life’
Though their roots are in Texas, Parquet Courts are very much in the New York tradition of bands, not afraid to let their new surroundings influence and inform their music. In their early days the city came out in the lyrics, stumbling stoned and starving through Ridgewood, Queens, but it quickly started to affect the music, too, as Andrew Savage, Austin Brown, Max Savage and Sean Yeaton became better musicians and learned how to play off one another. Only Savage and Brown still live in NYC but you still feel the beat of the city running through their music. And the beat is stronger than ever on their seventh album, Sympathy for Life.
Urban life is a theme throughout and though the album was largely finished by April of 2020, as Yeaton noted when we talked to him about the album, many of the lyrics "seem to resonate now and feel kind of weirdly, post-pandemic." Take the album's opening salvo, the joyous "Walking at a Downtown Pace," which finds Savage excited to be back in in the bustling streets: "Return the smile on an unmasked friend as we take streets I don’t walk down because I want to avoid / Fighting temptation. Walk at a downtown pace and treasure the crowds that once made me act so annoyed." Set to a banging drum pattern, it's like Parquet Courts accidentally ran into a marching band drumline at a Bushwick intersection.
Then there's Austin Brown's simmering "Marathon of Anger," which seems inspired by the summer of 2020. "This city has changed, as the kettle got tighter / we changed our shape and shot the truth up like a cure," he sings against a slinky backing that sounds like Eno-era Talking Heads on muscle relaxants, as ticking drum machines, synthesizer sonar pings, skeletal guitar and a slippery bassline add to the track's surreal state.
Parquet Courts have dabbled with dance rhythms on their last couple albums, but Sympathy for Life is the band's most groove-oriented album to date. Parquet Courts made most of it with Rodaidh McDonald, a very hands-on producer whose credits include The xx and Hot Chip. Many of the songs on the album were created from marathon jams that were chopped up and reconfigured into tight tracks that mostly ride under four minutes. Parquet Courts are far from the only rock band to incorporate dance music into their sound, but they do it in a way that feels like a natural progression that acknowledges the influences while still sounding like themselves.
Primal Scream's groundbreaking 1991 rock-n-rave classic Screamadelica is cited as a touchstone here and you could imagine the shuffling "Plant Life" -- which sounds more like Happy Mondays, actually -- going over well at the Hacienda or getting a radical remix by the late Andrew Weatherall. About half the album explores this new territory. "Zoom Out" might be the best of the bunch, a bongo-fueled call to arms where Brown urges us to look at the bigger picture -- "when you zoom out tomorrow is now!" The arrangement feels influenced by everything from Tinariwen to William Onyeabor, but the shouty chorus and Brown's delivery make it clear this is a Parquet Courts song. The band pull off similar feats on "Trullo," which is equal parts spaced-out funk and nervous cabin fever, and on the deft title track which is one of two songs on the album produced by John Parish and which has the album's most immediate groove.
While they've got their dancing shoes on, Parquet Courts have not abandoned the shouty punk that made Light Up Gold such a blast. The ripper count is still high, though you can feel the new rhythmic complexity and new technical savvy in garagey tracks like "Black Widow Spider" and the defiant "Homo Sapien" that combine the glee of loud guitars with the chance to incorporate some cool new toys. The latter is also a prime example of the lyrical themes that run through Savage's songs on the album -- living in a world where technology and commerce encroach on nearly every aspect of our lives. "What a time to be alive / A TV set in the fridge / A voice that recites the news and / Leaves out the gloomy bits." While he may be unimpressed with some of the latest time-saving features built into kitchen appliances, Parquet Courts are making the most of the digital age, while remaining a very human, very New York band. Tomorrow is now.
Pick up Sympathy for Life on vinyl in the BV shop and listen to the album below.