Parquet Courts, Sugarhill Supper Club and the power of narrative

parquetsugarhillLight Up Gold, Parquet Courts’ amazing breakthrough LP, proved that the Brooklyn-via Denton, Texas band were going to be more than just another faceless post-punk act faithfully churning out punchy two-and-a-half minute sing-a-longs. While the immediacy of the songs may be the most instantly appealing characteristic of the record, the band’s sharp wit and thoughtfully penned lyrics elevated them above other bands of their ilk. Not only could they write catchy hooks, they understood the power of narrative. On their third full-length album, the recently released Sunbathing Animal, Parquet Courts are looking to cement their place in one of music’s great narratives, the romanticized lineage of great New York guitar bands.

“I like to think of ourselves that way,” [frontman Andrew] Savage said before running through a list of benchmark New York acts whose names he’d like to see Parquet Courts counted among one day: Velvet Underground, Thugs, New York Dolls, Ramones, Talking Heads, Suicide, Sonic Youth. [NY Times]

It takes more than great records to earn a spot in New York City’s imposing rock cannon. Not only are all of the bands Andrew Savage rattled off above responsible for some of the most innovative and influential records in music history, they also managed to personify their unique time and corner of the city. So, if you’re a Ridgewood, Queens-repping band trying to cement your legacy in post-Bloomberg New York, where better to play your big hometown record release show than an authentic soul food restaurant and disco on the outskirts of post-gentrified North Brooklyn? A mid-sized Bowery Presents venue just wouldn’t have been the same.

I arrived at Bed-Stuy’s Sugarhill Supper Club, on a non-discreet corner a few blocks away from the Bedford-Nostrand G-train, and excitedly surveyed my surroundings. 90’s rollerskating rink styled carpeting stretched from wall to wall, which were completely covered with mirrors. The space had the same mildly depressing dated luxury I normally associate with Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casinos. Future Punx were on the stage, and I thought their particular brand of keytar-driven new-wave was a bit of an odd choice for the guitar-heavy bill. They sounded good from afar, but I missed most of their set choking down delicious fried chicken drumsticks and bland iceberg salad, before hitting the astroturfed outdoor bar for a few rounds of overpriced drinks (not sure if they were price-gouging for the special event, but I saw someone buy a shot of Smirnoff for TWELVE DOLLARS.)

I caught most of Protomartyr, who were far more impressive live than on record, though I still count the Detroit-based band’s Under Color Of Official Right among the better releases of the year. I had never really bought into the Iceage comparisons they’ve garnered in some reviews until I saw them last night. They’re more than a few shades of black lighter, but the sound isn’t too far off. They’re much, much heavier in person than on their records. Sean Yeaton and Austin Brown joined them for a couple of tracks at the end of the set, which I thought sounded like covers?

As much as I love Parquet Courts and had predicted a steep, upward-sloping career trajectory after catching them at Living Bread Deli two years ago, it’s been difficult for me to accept how popular they’ve become; even after all the late night TV spots and magazine-length features. Once they climbed onto the stage, it hit me: this band just sold out some random soul food restaurant in Bed-Stuy on a Wednesday night, and holy shit, this room is actually pretty big.

I didn’t have the best vantage point, but I could see Andrew Savage’s unkempt mini-fro bouncing up an down as the band tore into the A-side of Sunbathing Animal. It may have been where I was standing, but Yeaton’s thundering bass seemed to command the room, with angular guitar distortion weaving in and out of his trance-inducing tempo. In case you forgot you were listening to a NEW YORK CITY BAND, each track from the relatively slow-burning LP was sprawled out for what at times felt like about ten minutes of Velvet Underground-style guitar freakouts. Parquet’s extended jam sessions relied heavily on repetition, lulling the crowd into a state of hypnosis, before shocking them back to reality with their infectious riffs and choruses.

Homage and tribute to the ghosts of NYC bands past helped the show succeed in extending Parquet Courts narrative on a stylistic and superficial level, but any great storyteller will tell you that resonance comes from metaphor and subtext. In this context, the band’s choice of venue was perhaps more powerful than the performance itself. With the right kind of eyes, one can see how transplanting a sold out indie rock show to a 70’s era soul food restaurant in Bed-Stuy can be viewed as a living, breathing metaphor for North Brooklyn gentrification, with Bed-Stuy as the new frontier of New York City’s perpetual bohemian manifest-destiny. The Velvet Underground had SoHo. The no-wavers had the Lower East Side. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs had Williamsburg. Parquet Courts have Bushwick. They have Bed-Stuy. They have Ridgewood.

Culture can transform neighborhoods, for better or for worse, so the presence of resident artists often is met with a degree of unease and tension. While the vibe was relaxted at Sugarhill, there were a few tense moments during the set, mainly during the band’s more well-known songs, including “Gold Record Diamond Mind,” “Borrowed Thyme” and “Yonder Is Closer To The Heart. Despite cautionary emails from event organizers AdHoc to take extra care in being respectful of the non-venue space, people began to mosh and crowd surf.

Security seemed a bit flustered by the crowd during these highs (and really, for much of the night, with no re-entry and full pat-downs), looking down nose at the band (or so it seemed, from the floor) as they pounded out the faster songs from Light Up Gold. It was in those moments where things felt mildly intrusive. Granted, if you’re organizing a punk rock show, you have to expect a degree of playful violence, but it still felt as if the cultural construct of the show was taking over the space and those associated with the construct weren’t treating the space with respect. Or maybe I was just really stoned?

Things quickly calmed and overall, it was a great performance; on a par with their opening set for The Men at Bowery Ballroom last year, which was probably the tightest set I ever saw them play. The show ended with the title track from Sunbathing Animal, one of the more high energy tracks from the record. It was a somewhat surprising choice because the album had only been out for a couple days and most people hadn’t had much of a chance to fully digest it, though everyone was amped all the way through. I would have guessed that they’d go out with their “biggest hit,” “Stoned and Starving,” at an “arrival” type of show like this one was, but it didn’t even make the set list.

I’m not sure if I believe in the concept of a New York guitar rock “savior” in the an age where we all inhabit self-imposed streaming-digital K-holes, but Parquet Courts are probably the best positioned Brooklyn-based band to make a meteoric Strokes-like leap into mainstream consciousness. Their music has broad-based appeal and familiar indie-approved touchstones. Their sound may not be particularly indebted to the more aggressive and abrasive sounds typically associated with New York bands, but does that really matter in a hyper-exposed age where indie and Brooklyn are synonymous? Probably not, but Parquet Courts know how to exploit the narrative.

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