Parquet Courts: ‘Sunbathing Animal’ has a punk sound with surprising influences


Parquet Courts. From left: Max Savage, Andrew Savage, Sean Yeaton, Austin Brown. (Ben Rayner/Ben Rayner)
June 2

Three of the four members of Parquet Courts hail from Texas but have lived in Brooklyn since the band’s inception in 2010, a fact that lead singer-guitarist Andrew Savage is quick to point out over the phone from his apartment in Bed-Stuy. That neighborhood’s long arc of gentrification was immortalized in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and continues. Savage casually sums it up with an observation: “It seems like more people are moving here and walking around at night.”

The band — also featuring singer-guitarist Austin Brown, bassist Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage (Andrew’s younger brother) — blends pared-down punk with looser, expansive guitar interplay and hit its stride with the 2013 breakthrough album “Light Up Gold.” Between its throwback ’90s indie rock sound and the speak-sing vocal delivery favored by Savage, the band has earned comparisons to indie rock kingpins Pavement and to the godfather of all things punk, Lou Reed.

“I didn’t always sing the way I do now,” Savage, 28, says. “It takes some practice to find your identity as a lead singer of a band. It was more of me finding myself.” He mentions proto-punk cult favorite Jonathan Richman as an influence alongside Reed, in addition to “punk bands that have a more casual approach but still have a sense of seriousness in the way they deliver.”

A lot of work went into creating the band’s new album, “Sunbathing Animal” (out Tuesday), which was recorded in three sessions spaced across an eight-month span from May 2013 through January. By contrast, “Light Up Gold” was recorded and mixed in three days.

“It was kind of antithetical to business as usual in Parquet Courts because we’ve always been a band that works very quickly and doesn’t hold anything too preciously, but this time around there was more consideration in doing the best that we could,” Savage says. “Therefore, stuff was re-recorded and new songs were constantly being written.”

The lyrics shine a light on Savage’s concept for the album. “A big theme of the record is captivity and confinement in relation to freedom,” he says. “The blues was an easy point of reference to it, and I kind of wanted a record that sounded like future blues.”

Sometimes it took a little experimentation to capture that vibe. The noise blues track “She’s Rollin,” which begins with a pulsing bass riff and a simple guitar solo, didn’t crystallize until the third take. The foundation of the song is a blistering harmonica part played by Lea Cho, one half of the Queens-based noise duo Blues Control. “The first two times, she was just playing a harmonica into a mike, but the third time, we ran it through a small tube amp and miked the amp she was playing out of. I think it made for a better sound.”

The structure of the blues was on Savage’s mind throughout the writing of “Sunbathing Animal.” “[The songs] are very structured, and there’s a kind of regimented and repetitive backbone to the record,” Savage says. “For the most part, both [“Sunbathing Animal” and “Duckin and Dodgin”] are a single note. Because things are so structured and scaled back, it allows you to do so much more with the voice and the guitar.”

“Duckin and Dodgin” takes its name, if not its sound, from the prison blues of the same name, one of hundreds of songs discovered and recorded by Alan Lomax. There’s just a hint of 12-bar improvisation in the song’s guitar solo. The lyrical inspiration comes from an unexpectedly different kind of music. “I’m really into the Russians Shostakovich and Prokofiev,” Savage says. “ ‘Duckin and Dodgin’ is kind of based on them and their relationship to Stalin.” Looking at the song through that prism transforms its anthemic chorus: “You been duckin’ and dodgin’ but you can’t come home no more. That key you got won’t let you in my door.”

For a punk album that can seem straightforward on first listen, there’s a lot of understated complexity burrowed into “Sunbathing Animal.” Another song, “Vienna II,” clocking in at just one minute, is an homage to the Second Viennese School, the classical musical movement led by the composer Arnold Schoenberg that explored atonality.

Savage, whose first instrument was the upright bass when he was president of his high school’s orchestra, gleans insight of melodic structure from baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Of Bach’s famous “Goldberg Variations,” Savage observes, “At their core, they’re really simple, but what makes them so special is how he can take these very simple tonalities and make them into these very intricate and complex things to the point where they are simultaneously simple and complex, but not to the point of being overdone or unnecessarily embellished.”

The album’s longest track, “Instant Disassembly,” is also one of its strongest and clocks in at a very un-punk seven minutes. “I had a lot to say in that song. That’s chiefly what it was,” Savage says of the song’s length. “I guess stuff that couldn’t necessarily be abridged.”

He’d like to try his hand someday at a classical composition and says he has worked on pieces in private. “I guess I feel intimidated to pursue it further. There’s a certain amount of mistrust with a rocker trying to enter the classical world because those two are so opposite, you know?”

Kompanek is a freelance writer.

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