The first proper album from New York’s indie rock oddballs turns five this year, but is still one of the genre’s most compelling and challenging records today.
New York is a city perhaps best known in the annals of indie rock for producing bands like The Strokes and Interpol at the turn of the century, just before guitar music entered its dying throes. Perhaps motivated by the impending death of the genre, four New Yorkers going by the mangled moniker of Parkay Quarts decided to take alternative rock into their own hands. Their first ever release, American Specialties, had been an indecipherable mess of noise and amp feedback, with vocals that were just short of the bottom end of inaudible – some fans even claim that the cassette had been made as a joke of sorts. But this time, Parkay Quarts smoothened out their edges and re-dubbed themselves Parquet Courts; that little bit of extra lacquer and shine doing them more than just a little bit of good. The record they ended up releasing redefined the genre with an inimitable laissez-faire flair that garnered them universal critical acclaim (as well as a re-release on legendary New York indie label What’s Your Rupture?), and undoubtedly put alternative rock in better stead with its previously disillusioned fans and critics.
Light Up Gold sounded unlike any other album that existed at the time of its release. 2012 was a divided year for alternative music – on one hand, the genre was beginning to see the resurgence of heavier music at a level that stood just below the mainstream, thanks to bands like hardcore punk outfit Metz, rock duo Japandroids, and lo-fi pop foursome Cloud Nothings. On the other side of the dichotomy, the indie charts were ruled by breathy vocals, sparkling guitar licks, and major chord progressions, courtesy of DIIV and Beach House (two of indie rock’s biggest names to this day). Light Up Gold, however, fit into neither of these categories, and it was such a refreshing change from the two wholly separate strains of alternative music present at the time that many listeners, for whom the album was the first introduction to Parquet Courts, didn’t know what to make of it at all.
[They] paint a picture of a tired, dusty, and worn-down America whose inhabitants either have too much to say, or absolutely nothing at all.
Initially, listening to Light Up Gold is akin to voluntarily assaulting your eardrums with the melodic equivalent of what anxiety feels like. Parquet Courts’ triple vocalists Andrew Savage, Austin Brown, and Sean Yeaton sound almost homogenous, with the same half-yelped, half-spoken style of delivery in American accents so thick they’re barely decipherable. Each and every track is either an inherently danceable thousand-mile-a-minute journey (thanks to drummer Max Savage’s invaluable rhythm work) or a slow, plodding wade through existentialist woe and rural or suburban mundanity. The guitar riffs are skittish and wobbly, even sounding slightly out of tune in places, but with all the aplomb of the world’s most confident ne’er-do-well. At times, even Andrew Savage’s cleverly crafted lyrics descend into esoteric indecipherability, such as on the perplexingly-titled track ‘Disney P.T.’ (which has absolutely nothing to do with the children’s cartoon company at all) and the album’s title track. The album is undoubtedly a product of its time, as well as of this decade. 2012 had been the year in which the sudden apocalypse had loomed, based on an ancient calendar that may or may not have had any real scientific footing; 2017 brings similar fears of a nuclear holocaust which may or may not be unfounded. For a long time now, the future has been uncertain, and Parquet Courts were very keen to drive the feeling home even back in 2012.
This fatalist, apocalyptic sentiment, however, was met on Light Up Gold with equal parts disdain and apathy – the band’s trademark sound that would properly establish itself on their sophomore album, Sunbathing Animal. Parquet Courts are a band deeply entrenched in their American roots, and lyricist Andrew Savage did not hesitate to use this to his advantage on Light Up Gold. Savage’s lyrics, much like the album’s cover art (also designed by him), paint a picture of a tired, dusty, and worn-down America whose inhabitants either have too much to say, or absolutely nothing at all. Fervent nationalism reigns in a parodic take on the decline of American industry in ‘Careers in Combat’, which describes a nation in which “there are no more art museums to guard” and “the lab is out of white lab coats”, but hey, “there are still careers in combat, my son!”. Meanwhile on ‘Donuts Only’, the good people of Texas “reserve their highest hosannas for the communion song that’s served with light beer” as Andrew Savage’s voice cracks on a zealous cry of, “You cannot find bagels here!” – a tongue-in-cheek jab at his current city of residence. North Dakota is also described in an almost mythic fashion on the eponymous track, which details “train death paintings”, “anti-meth murals”, and “cigarette advertisement country” that conjures up pictures of rural America’s surreal, hellish landscape. Parquet Courts truly made their mark through pointing out this weariness in the heart of the nation. Light Up Gold held a lens up to American socio-political stagnation without even truly meaning to make a clear comment on the issue – and it is this exact lack of forcefulness behind their message that makes the record all the more compelling.
a far cry from the alternative music scene of the moment, and a heraldic announcement that Parquet Courts were here to stay
Even when tackling the issue of aimlessness, Light Up Gold ends up right on the mark. Breakout single ‘Stoned and Starving’ details the ramblings of a man whose biggest concern lies in choosing what snack he should eat – its droning yet catchy riff, repeated again and again to kingdom come, makes it the quintessential slacker song; perhaps even a paean to the apathetic youth of America. On ‘No Ideas’, the narrator appeals to Rene Descartes as if in prayer, before a psychiatric examination reveals that he is simply devoid of any intellect whatsoever. The album’s standout track ‘Yonder Is Closer To The Heart’ perfectly captures another strain of apathy, too – that of the working man, who measures the passing of time at his job in laundry claim tags and pointless small talk. “This thickness is just enough to wade through,” concludes Savage, in almost desperate resignation to the endless slog of daily life. On the other side of the coin, opening track ‘Master of My Craft’ narrates the inner monologue of an archetypal successful capitalist over four discordant chords – “Death to all false profits, round here we praise the dollar, you fuckin’ hippie,” intones Austin Brown, with all the urgency of a stockbroker trying to avoid campaigners asking for survey signatures in the streets. The track comes to a head as Brown’s capitalist persona yells, with the only real modicum of emotion we hear on the album, “Socrates died in the fucking gutter!”. It is a clear reflection on the state of the nation – while the unexamined life may not be worth living, an examined life in America can lead to either a pauper’s grave, or interminable dissatisfaction.
Light Up Gold, in spite of its philosophical musings and shrewd, astute observations, did not garner Parquet Courts chart fame – the time for that came much later in 2016, after the band signed to Rough Trade Records in London and released their equally seminal third album, Human Performance. However, what Light Up Gold did achieve was one of the best instances of introspection and commentary from an American band, on the slow and steady decline of not only the country, but the people’s state of mind. In its time, it was a far cry from the alternative music scene of the moment, and a heraldic announcement that Parquet Courts were here to stay. Five years on, with an illustrious four studio albums, two EPs, and an ever-growing fanbase, it looks like that proclamation really did ring true.
Image: Brian Harkin