Paranoiac music media watchdogs take note: 2013 is emerging as the year in which “populist” may just usurp “kaleidoscopic” for the role of most egregious crutch of music journalists everywhere.
Rendered meaningless through sheer overuse, the adjective is regularly, absurdly, being applied to the music of long-declining artists who are churning out their blandest, most palatable work (or, more accurately, products) yet. Scan any glowing review of new Daft Punk or Arcade Fire materials, and keep eyes peeled for the offending label of praise. Typically, “populist” is now used to cover for market-tested mediocrity, rebranding it as a kind of magnanimity: the generous artists stepping down from their thrones to offer the populace something it can understand.
The perversity of the whole thing only becomes more laughable when one encounters something like Parquet Court’s Tally All the Things That You Broke, an EP that seems to announce, within seconds, that it lives and breathes on the same shit-streaked urban streets as any of its under- or unemployed listeners. Tally comes from a world where choosing to spend your last dollars on either coffee, food or booze is the most life-altering decision to be made; its incessant, maze-like guitars and nonsensical maxims suggesting a looping, dead-end life. This sense is immediately apparent in the opening “You’ve Got Me Wonderin’ Now.” The song’s indelicate balance between jittery euphoria and head-melting white noise is analogous to the queasy high of racing after a toxic city bus while futilely searching your pockets for enough change to even board.
This is music that caresses those neurons that may have inspired you to earnestly study a liberal art, yet also encourages the centers in your brain that urge their own destruction via malt liquor abuse — the soundtrack to intensely specific banalities and frustrations. Those familiar with Parquet Court’s debut, Light Up Gold, already know that singer Andrew Savage doesn’t deal in making zeitgeist-y statements, instead crafting brick-by-brick compendiums of details hilarious and devastating. Here, he balances some of his most insightful lyrics with his most luminously inane, strangling meaning out of the meaningless (“Pictures of octopus arms brushing on urban decay”) in the best tradition of Mark E. Smith, Stephen Malkmus and Robert Pollard.
If Savage stays in oblique stream-of-consciousness mode for a fair portion of Tally, it’s likely because he uses up a whole album’s worth of observations for “He’s Seeing Paths,” a primitive hip-hop/honky-tonk companion piece to “Stoned and Starving.” It’s Beck’s “Loser,” rewritten in a dense, knotty cursive that couldn’t possibly translate onto FM radio. It also may be the first Parquet Courts’ narrative in which something actually happens – even if it is just the story’s hero trying to evade a minor drug offense.
To be sure, Parquet Courts is speaking in a dialect that was perfected a couple decades prior, but it’s one that has lost none of its capacity for boundary-blurring pliability. Light Up Gold’s “Careers in Combat” contemporized a lackadaisical threading of Pavement-like guitars by pitting them against a list of slacker careers that, in present day, have seemingly gone extinct. Tally, particularly “He’s Seeing Paths,” strives forward in this direction, remapping the geographies of early-‘90s indie rock with reckless invention. Because the only way to stay true to this ideology is to fuck with the formulas, audaciously and continuously. Tally is an exercise in inhabiting the mouthpieces of generations past, and forcing them to speak truths about our own time and place. Or, reductively, a kind of populism, if only for the contingent that is actively in search of what Parquet Courts is broadcasting.