Stephen Malkmus and Parquet Courts explore indie-rock freedom in an age of decreased opportunity

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Parquet Courts Ebru Yildiz

Stephen Malkmus has written a political song.

You might even call it a protest song. Yes, the same Stephen Malkmus who was once in Pavement. No, it’s not very good.

“Bike Lane” appears to conflate gentrification and the murder of Freddie Gray. The former Pavement frontman chirps “another beautiful bike lane” in the chorus, then, with no greater vocal gravitas, relates the circumstances surrounding Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police in the verses. The intentions are good (aren’t they always?), but the irony feels cheap, somehow unfair not just to Gray but to two-wheeled yuppies. There’s plenty to say about the use of police violence to erase people of color by any means necessary from an urban landscape that’s been reconfigured for the comfort of a largely white middle class. But exhorting “Go, Freddie, go,” as though the victim were some folkloric hero like Johnny B. Goode or Stagger Lee, fails to extract mythic heroism from actual tragedy.

It’s unsettling to hear a master songwriter (who, incidentally, will play a sold-out Turf Club show on Friday) attempt to adapt his gifts to the necessities of the cultural moment only to prove his time-tested sensibility a mismatch for the endeavor. Fortunately, the bulk of Malkmus’ new album, Sparkle Hard, is a rewarding push-and-pull between his style and the substance of the world around him. Set alongside Wide Awake!, the latest album from his spiritual descendants in the band Parquet Courts, it raises hope that contemporary indie rock can be smartly political—not by serving up slogans to shout in the street or analysis to be pondered, but by refracting our experiences through word and sound in a way that refines our emotional response to the blare that otherwise engulfs us.

Malkmus has now led his band the Jicks (whoever they happened to be at the moment) for about a half-decade longer than Pavement existed. Because the 51-year-old dad and husband is now a hobbyist exploring niches rather than a young visionary, each Jicks album has, in its own brilliantly idiosyncratic way, seemed quite unnecessary—and I mean that as the highest praise. So much great art arises in defiance of oppression, we’re in danger of believing that suffering, either personal or collective, is needed to create. By contrast, so much of indie rock has been music born of privilege (as bohemian art often is), and its challenge is to not squander that privilege but to address a simple yet utopian question: What art would you make if you weren’t driven by necessity?

But now it’s 2018, and Malkmus sings, “There’s no room left to do/Everything that you said you’d do.” Throughout Sparkle Hard, reality limits what can be imagined, as current events surface like subconscious fears misshaping themselves into dreams. Malkmus’ lyrics are as collagist as ever, but phrases as unremarkable “men are scum” or “you know you should be winning” on songs titled as simply as “Middle America” resonate far beyond their basic meanings, and statements like “Come from the underground/Throw me right back where I belong” feel like wishful thinking. When the lyric “I’m not looking for the kind of guy who’ll turn my third place medal into gold” later turns into “I’ll start looking...,” it’s like hearing a history of how 21st-century American megacapitalism has diminished our dreams, compressed into a single song.

Even in the ’90s, Malkmus was rarely as inscrutable as plainspoken normies insisted—you couldn’t always construct a plot from a Pavement lyric, but you could trace a train of thought, or at least limn a mood. Maybe you didn’t want to put in the work, to distinguish between irony and sarcasm or earnestness and sincerity, but who’s the slacker then? But he was free to set off with no direction in mind and discover a memorable path. Now, in an age of didacticism, his insistence on continuing to communicate in a way that’s allusive without being evasive is its own modest political statement. What do we need? Secrets! When do we need ’em? Right now!

 

Four years ago, Malkmus famously mistook a Parquet Courts song playing in a coffee shop for Pavement, and considered the resemblance a compliment. But even in their scrappy early days, this quartet of Texan-bred New Yorkers (who’ll be at the Fine Line on Thursday) sounded at most like a band who’d been influenced by the same bands as Pavement. They have more in common with the Minutemen—a comparison I’m hardly the first to make but that bears repeating as Wide Awake!’s lyrics (for instance, “Nothing is normal/Manipulated into believing/I’m exercising skepticism/Honesty is everything”) lean into the fractured syntax those ’80s blue-collar funk-tinged punk revisionists favored.

Wide Awake! is also the band’s sixth album in eight years, but don’t forget those two substantial EPs and the live disc and the pair of oddball collaborations and did I mention singer A. Savage’s solo disc? Slackers they ain’t, partly because if you want to be the only youngish all-white-male guitar band really worth anyone’s time in 2018 you’ve got to work extra hard, and also because New York ain’t as cheap as it was back in the ’90s when neoliberalism was still wasteful enough to leave a few pools of cash here and there for artsy underachievers to lap from. Twenty years ago, Malkmus supported himself by warning Whitney patrons not to step too close to the paintings; now, as the Courts once lamented, “There are no more summer lifeguard jobs/There are no more art museums to guard.”

So yes, options are limited—economically, aesthetically, spiritually. But with Danger Mouse’s production brightening the corners of their rant ’n’ roil, Parquet Courts burrow forward with termite temerity regardless. The opening guitar crunch of “Total Football” sounds like Joan Jett adapting “The Internationale” for the World Cup, and fist-pumping chants of solidarity like “Better protected/Whenever collected” and “Power resembled/If we are assembled” ring out as though to say, sure, sports is great, but have you ever tried full communism? “Violence” addresses many of the issues “Bike Lane” attempts to, but with stark phrasing (“we cannot afford to close an open casket”) and acid questioning (“What is an up-and-coming neighborhood and where is it coming from?”)

Wide Awake! seems determined to prove that any genre can be “punk,” that eclecticism is a political virtue because it proves that urgency and a sense of play can coexist. Parquet Courts reach into dub and funk, the title track is a roller-skating jam as protest rally, and “Death Will Bring Change” is ’60s pop-psychedelia with a children’s chorus warbling in support. And the band clearly wants us all to join in. While I was doing the dishes the other night, I started singing the bounciest chorus here: “Well I can’t count how many times I’ve been outdone by nihilism/Joined the march that splits an open heart into a schism.” I still don’t know exactly what it means. But I now know exactly how it feels to mean it.

Parquet Courts
With: Goat Girl
Where: Fine Line Music Cafe
When: 8 p.m. Thurs. May 31
Tickets: 18+; $18/$20/$35; more info here

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
With: Lithics
Where: Turf Club
When: 8 p.m. Fri. June 1
Tickets: Sold out; more info here


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