Parquet Courts’ lead singer Andrew Savage, one-half of the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas band’s two-headed leadership, is mad as hell. While on the opposite side of the stage, bandmate Austin Brown is getting wistful. That yin-and-yang of punk and funk – as Savage notes in the opening track to “Wide Awake!,” “Total Football:” “Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive” – lends itself to the very human dilemma at the heart of Parquet Courts’ fifth album, “Wide Awake!”
Often cited as part of the continuum of downtown New York art-guitar bands — from the Velvet Underground through Television to the Strokes — Parquet Courts are the perfect example of rock miniaturization, refining what they do to a hard diamond for those in-the-know. By enlisting pop wunderkind Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton as their first-ever outside producer, Parquet Courts has opened up its musical palette even more than most recent effort, 2016’s ballad-laden “Human Performance.”
In fact, “Wide Awake!” may be the most woke punk-rock record since the heyday of the Clash, and it starts off with a very appropriate soccer-style chant. “Total Football” is a Wire-like burst of energy, a clarion call for consensus that turns the last album’s particles of “dust” into “conduits of electricity,” insisting, “power resembled, if we are assembled” and “Only through those who stay awake can an institution be dismantled.” And, how can a lifelong New York Jets fan not appreciate Savage’s final expletive apropos of nothing, “F— Tom Brady!”
The album’s Lennon/McCartney-esque schizophrenia is given context under Danger Mouse’s smooth hand, Savage’s funk-rap Chuck D-like spoken diatribe rant against “Violence” (“Savage is my name because Savage is how I feel”) neatly segueing into his nonchalant apocalyptic warning in “Before the Waters Get Too High,” with Sean Yeaton’s loping, circular bass riff.
Brown’s dreamy, Beatlesque “Mardi Gras Beads,” with its twangy guitars and introspective lyrics (“A list of regrets is no place to be / I’m coming in late but I’ll never modulate us / To the minor key”), has a quiet desperation (“Smiling all the while the pain chips off my Mardi Gras beads”) that lives up to some of his personal touchstones on the album – from Townes Van Zandt to Augustus Pablo.
Savage, on the other hand, cites punk agitators like Black Flag, Flipper and Minutemen for his contributions, with the best example the two-part “Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience,” which juxtaposes pure anger and the desire to move your body — between wanting to slap someone in the face or dance with them — culminating in a classic call-and-response refrain.
“Freebird II,” another Brown number, sounds like it could have come straight off the Velvets’ “Loaded,” followed by Savage’s Henry Rollins-styled rant on “Normalization,” set to a thumping funk bass line and an inner dialogue made explicit given a “to be or not to be” existential urgency. “Do I pass the Turing test? / Do I think? / I’m not sure I wanna know.”
The rest of the album continues to flip back and forth between the two poles of independence and individuality, revolt and retreat, the head and the heart… “Back to Earth” is a contemplative Brown song that expresses that dichotomy with eloquence (“Get love where you find it / It’s the only fist we have to fight with”), while the title track is a joyous Parliament-Funkadelic style rave-up that offers the telling line, “Mind so woke ’cause my brain never pushes the breaks.” Just like George Clinton once said… “Free your mind… and your ass will follow.” Parquet Courts take that seriously, folks.
A Savage number, “NYC Observation” offers advice on “how to glide past people sleeping on the sidewalk” and what to do if you are locked out of the homeless shelter. Moving onward from a first-hand report on urban decay, “Wide Awake!” veers into a spiritual direction, with “Extinction,” a glorious pop-punk riff you can pogo to which weighs in on the distinction between “life and lore,” searching to “feel a buzz that can’t be bottled, smoked or canned,” before wondering if we’re “sabotaging life just to find something to write about.” It finally confesses: “Lying to ourselves everyday becomes incredibly easy.”
A children’s choir reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” brings a poignant feel to Brown’s “Death Will Bring Change,” a sprawling meditation on mortality that longs for release, which arrives in the album’s final song, “Tenderness,” a Bo Diddley-like beat and New Orleans honky-tonk piano shuffle that admits, in its final line, “I need the fix of a little tenderness.”
Don’t we all in this age of both Trump and Tom Brady, but who would’ve thought a group that got its break with a song called “Stoned and Starving” would deliver it to us? It’s a positive sign rock still has some roll left in its weary bones.