Like an old leather jacket that still fits just right, Parquet Courts is certain to make fans of golden-era indie rock feel warm and nostalgic. The band isn’t exactly shy about displaying their influences, from the stiff punk backbeats and taut, wiry riffs seemingly pulled from some kind of CBGB time capsule, to the clean guitar arpeggios, yowling slacker vocals, and dry stoner humor redolent of their most obvious forbearers, Pavement. But even if there are aspects of their sound that are derivative, their fifth album, Human Performance, represents a significant step forward in terms of the band’s emotional range and melodic richness. Sure, a song like “Steady on My Mind” sounds so much like Pavement that it might as well be called “Heaven Is Still a Truck,” but with its lilting guitar tones and lullaby-like melody, the execution eclipses the influence.
Human Performance is a bit of a curious title for an album by a group whose regular-dude persona is one conspicuously lacking in artifice. But the band makes at least a nominal effort to slightly expand their instrumental palette throughout—some congas here, some keyboard fills there, some car horns elsewhere. But more than that, the album expands Parquet Courts’s emotional depth beyond adolescent snark and toward a core of vulnerability. The band keeps the goofing off to a minimum, sequestering it mostly to the short “I Was Just Here,” which caps dissonant, off-kilter riffs with a brief Ramones-esque coda.
Otherwise, they’re not afraid to sound sensitive on “Steady on My Mind” and the quavering acoustic closer “It’s Gonna Happen.” Even the driving opener, “Dust,” ripples with a more mature air of anxiety, as the dust “sneaks in ignored/It stacks up around” only to “suffocate, suffocate.” On the title track’s big, loud chorus, the band even reaches, quite successfully, for something approaching arena-rock guitar drama. Frontman Andrew Savage forgoes his usual bark-singing and delivers a vocal performance that’s damn near soulful, or at least as close as he can manage with his limited range. It’s an atypically serious and emotionally sincere-sounding song, and even if the lyrics are just a characteristically well-drawn postmortem on a failed relationship, it points down an intriguing path the band could continue to follow in order to transcend their heroes’ influences.
One thing Parquet Courts lacks is a guitarist of, say, Stephen Malkmus’s caliber; it’s no surprise that the two most memorable guitar parts on Human Performance—the main riff on “Dust” and the piercing solo on the lazy strummer “Keep It Even”—are played by Jeff Tweedy, who recorded part of the album at the Wilco Loft in Chicago. Indeed, the best Savage and Austin Brown can manage themselves is the gnawing early Velvet Underground-style string-swatting that constitutes the extended outro of “One Man, No City”—the one part of the album on which the band’s indebtedness to their influences exceeds their ability to live up to those influences.
Fortunately, throughout the rest of the album, the band writes songs that allow them to excel as they stay well within their limitations. These are tight, economical pop songs actually worthy of Pavement comparisons in terms of not just sound, but melody. Indeed, no matter how much Savage and company’s collective lack of disposition toward tuneful singing may temporarily obscure it, songs like the sunny, concise “Outside” and the surfy “Berlin Got Blurry” possess some of the catchiest earworms you’re likely to hear this year.