Human Performance

Parquet Courts

Rough Trade, 2016

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Hands down, this is the most interesting rock album of the year so far. If these guys aren’t the heirs apparent to Talking Heads, I don’t know who is.

Arch but not cold, arty but accessible, dry but pulsating with intelligence and life, Human Performance is an indie art-rock album that defies description and keeps you coming back. There is a base template here infused with the cerebral, kinda distant, on-the-go aloofness of the Velvet Underground, Modern Lovers, and especially David Byrne, whose delivery seems to inspire Andrew Savage more than anyone else. They also approach their music with that level of seriousness; the only moments of levity, aside from the flashes of lyrical wit, are the bits of Texas country that seep in unaware and unopposed (you can’t take the Texas out of the man, after all).

“Dust” rolls in and stomps around for a few minutes, kind of like Pavement updated for a New York City obsessed with its cell phones, alternately single-minded and itchy; it’s a great way to start the album. A quick note: The digital edition of this album, at least on Spotify, includes the excellent song “Already Dead,” and it is truly worth hearing regardless of whether you like the rest of the album, so good it is. Pity it didn’t make the finished version, as it would have made this even better.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Anyway. “Outside” is effortless indie post-punk and the ridiculous, jerky “I Was Just Here,” which is too long at under two minutes, sounds like a 1981 King Crimson sidebar to blow off steam before the recording of Discipline; lyrically, it seems to concern a favorite restaurant of Savage’s that unexpectedly closed, something to which we can all relate. The title track and “Paraphrased” have similar approaches; get your riffs, get your New York punk attitude, and then pull the Parquet Courts trick of overdoing it. The latter features needless screams and a cool ‘90s alt-rock vibe toward the end, so it’s acceptable.

Yet where many other bands who make this kind of music now are just irritating and self-congratulatory, these guys somehow manage to be likable. Savage sometimes sings, sometimes yells, sometimes speaks (his Beck-like discussion on “Captive Of The Sun” fits the rhythm of the song better than sung lyrics would). “Steady On My Mind” is an honest ballad of sorts that gives way to the album’s centerpiece, the six-minute bongo-and-guitar “One Man, One City,” which brings all of the elements above – spoken words, Talking Heads feel, ‘70s CBGB-scene feel – into a song that embodies modern city life more than any other in recent memory.

After that song, things stay strong, with “Berlin Got Blurry” effectively using subtle Western twang guitars under Savage’s bored-sounding vocals about being lost in another country, not so much direction-wise as culturally on a micro level. “Two Dead Cops” is a shouty punk tune that takes a real incident from Savage’s neighborhood and reflects on what it actually means, if anything, while the melodic “Keep It Even” is sincere and uplifting, a rarity from such a detached band, made better by a guitar solo from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. I can do without “Pathos Prairie” and “It’s Gonna Happen,” which close the album with a shrug; subbing in “Already Gone” for those two would have bumped this up half a grade for me.

Maybe the detachment helps them deal with being poor and misguided in a crowded, noisy, gun-loving city where the J train rattles one’s skull. There are moments where you roll your eyes at these guys, of course, but they speak to places many of us have been, set to music both detailed and rowdy when necessary. There’s a lot to like about Human Performance. Along with “Already Gone,” this is easily their best album.

Rating: B

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© 2016 Benjamin Ray and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rough Trade, and is used for informational purposes only.