I. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INDIE-ROCK?
It’s telling that Parquet Courts are routinely described as a “punk” or “punk-influenced” band instead of an indie-rock group, because we’ve rendered the term absolutely useless. We’ve left it for the mainstream types to use the term on groups as disparate as Grizzly Bear and Beach House. Instead, the more obsessive among us have split up the wide-encompassing genres into smaller and smaller subgeneres. Chillwave. Neo-psych. Ambien-punk.
Nobody’s willing to call a spade what it is anymore. Parquet Courts is an indie-rock band.
The New York-via-Austin quartet represents indie-rock in its purest form — in its original form, even. Regardless of how tired the comparison has become in the past few months, they are certainly part of a lineage that started with Pavement: Young, whip-smart, irreverent almost to the point of dickishness. This is a band with songs about college chess circuits and the wastelands of North Dakota. This is a band with prominently featured Jewfros, homemade t-shirts, and a guitarist who looks exactly like Thurston Moore circa 1983. If they weren’t bursting out of their preschool years 20 years ago, they probably would have opened for Pavement.
And now we’re in this quandary where indie-rock doesn’t mean what it used to. Hell, it doesn’t really mean anything. But still, Parquet Courts — and a group on band member Andrew Savage’s self-run label Dull Tools — have commenced a surge forward and just might restore the term indie-rock as it was originally intended, as a style of music instead of a broad descriptor of anything not backed by a major record corporation.
The times as they once were might be returning.
II. THE UPWARD MOBILITY OF YUPPIES
Yuppies are from Omaha, Nebraska, the home a certain indie-rock institution from the earliest years of the 21st Century. I promise I won’t bore you with a history of Saddle Creek Records, but they’re also contextually important because they represent that time in music history where the term indie-rock was transitioning into an amorphous, almost ambiguous, genre label.
Bright Eyes was a slapdash, overly emotive, folky country group. Rilo Kiley’s only album for the label (the much-lauded and admittedly still pretty great The Execution of All Things) was more or less a widescreen guitar-pop record. Though there were a few exceptions, nearly every band signed to the label fit either one or the other description. Yuppies seem almost completely unfettered by the history of their local music scene, their crudely-drawn convertible rolling past in service of laying their own artistic ground.
“I HOPE THIS IS ALL JUST A FUCKED UP DREAM / BUT WILL THESE SEWERS STOP SINGING, I CAN’T STOP MY EARS FROM BUZZING / SIR, WHEN THIS PANIC SETS IN I’M NOT GOING TO KNOW WHERE I AM GOING / SO JUST TAKE ME TO A PLACE WITH SUNSHINE SO I CAN FEEL SOME LIGHT!!”
This is the frantic second verse of “Hitchin’ a Ride,” the first single from Yuppies’ self-titled album. The first verse nakedly cops from the Velvet Underground in addition to spouting the same kind of stream-of-consciousness anti-poetry Parquet Courts — and, by extension, Pavement — are explicitly known for. The album is replete with the same kind of ennui-afflicted emptiness, only Yuppies liken it to not only malaise after partying in the face of boredom, but also the boredom itself, especially oppressive and stifling in the wide open prairies of flyover country.
This anxiety manifests itself in a number of ways, like the alternately freewheeling and muted forward push of songs like “A Ride” and “What’s That?,” respectively. (Yuppies prove on this record to be nothing if not self-referential; As “A Ride” and “Hitchin’ a Ride” are cut from similar cloth, album closer “Across the Horizon” is merely an extension of album opener “Across the Prairies.”) Songs either end in abrupt silences (mostly the distinct feeling of getting ready for the next song) or atonal car crashes.
The weightless melancholy of “I Don’t Know” (complete with the can’t-miss couplet of “I swallowed an anchor the other day / Almost drowned in the bathtub”) quickly builds up weight and turns into a series of cathartic guitar blasts before falling apart and, ultimately, dissolving completely. Yuppies also have a darker side, specifically in “Worms” and “Race to the Finish,” where they relish in that thing Sonic Youth liked doing in the mid-’80s where they pretended they were Hell’s house band. Regardless of how they get it across, Yuppies is a smart and often fascinating album that alternates between rolling through like a tumbleweed or a tornado, clearly indicative of the midwestern environs which produced the band’s existential suffering.
III. PARKAY, LIKE BUTTER
Even in name, Tally All the Things You Broke is a more spread-out representation of Parquet Courts than their breakout, Light Up Gold. Although that record gave the band their reputation as literate, artsy punks, it’s by far the most straightforward release in their increasingly growing catalog. The band’s new EP is spiritually closer to the adventurousness of their insanely good American Specialties tape, with all the latter’s genre exploration and recorder flute squawks. If anything, it makes the lean punk tunes and feedback-laden lullabies of Light Up Gold to be an early chapter in a career long-shift than as a mission statement.
Of course, this isn’t to say they don’t enjoy trimming the fat occasionally. Tally’s first two (and best two) songs are straightforward punk burners. Well, that’s almost the case of the opening track. With its fluttering poetry — and its heartbroken refrain, “And I thought I knew a thing or two about the blues, but you’ve got me wonderin’ now” — accompanied once again by recorder (shades of American Specialties highlight “Largish/Dormant,” only way, way more melodic), “You’ve Got Me Wondering Now” is easily one of the band’s best works to date.
The rest of the EP finds the Courts stretching their legs stylistically, with a krautrock banger (“The More It Works”), what could pass for a Pavement take without any scrutiny (“Fall On Yr Face”), and the final track, “He’s Seeing Paths,” which is basically a Beastie Boys song (about a pot delivery boy!) with not as good rapping. Whether or not Parquet Courts’ popularity has allowed them to do this is a non-issue; it’s clear they’re the sort of band who would follow their whims against any current. It’s an odd, short listen, a stopgap with some of their best works right alongside undoubtedly their weirdest.
Of course, this is all in the spirit of that indie-rock I was talking about, where virtually zero of its artists gave half a shit about selling records, and this gave them artistic freedom to soar and stumble in alternate succession. Artists were allowed to grow up on tape, which is not to say it doesn’t happen now, but artists generally stay in the same lane to avoid losing what few fans they have. Here, with both Parquet Courts and Yuppies, we’re witnessing the beginning stages of two creative, smart, and most of all, uncompromising bands, willing to put serious thought into their work and then putting no thought at all into it and going off of impulses and their streams-of-consciousness. I remember a time where there was a term to classify this type of music. I remember when smarty art-rock was generally classified as “indie-rock,” but the times are changing. Who knows if they’ll change back, but Parquet Courts and Yuppies will be ready for whatever people will call their music.