I wasn’t expecting much. Why would I? Indie rock has been spinning its own wheels (and congratulating itself for the motion generated) for years now. (Remember that Sleater-Kinney record from last year, and how much acclaim it got? Well, some of that acclaim was because it had three good songs; the rest of it is because we’ve been starved for some capital-I, capital-R Indie Rock.)
Listening and re-listening, I have one of the most overwhelmingly emotional, lyrically specific and physically powerful indie rock records ever made. You know what else had all those qualities? Yesteryear’s Hop Along’s Painted Shut. Courtney Barnett’s debut album had the first two qualities, but not the third. Parquet Courts are quite emotional, but not overwhelming; groovy, but not powerful.
To be clear, this isn’t a masterpiece. For one thing, Will Toledo relies on the same trick a lot. Songs develop, and then he brings them to a cathartic conclusion by upping the volume of both his voice and the guitars: “WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT CHUBBY LITTLE KID WHO SMILED SO MUCH AND LOVED THE BEACH BOYS / WHAT HAPPENED IS I KILLED THAT FUCKER AND I TOOK HIS NAME AND I GOT NEW GLASSES!” (“Destroyed by Hippie Powers”); “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS / KILLER WHALES, KILLER WHALES!” (“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”); “DON’T WORRY / I WORRY FOR TWO / SO DON’T WORRY BABY” (“1937 State Park”); “I GIVE UPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP!” (“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”). Even the sleepy – hold on, let me copy-paste this – “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” goes through the same motions, with the rallying conclusion of “FRIENDS ARE BETTER, FRIENDS ARE BETTER WITH DRUGS / DRUGS ARE BETTER, DRUGS ARE BETTER WITH FRIENDS”, etc.
(I bolded the bit about killing off your past self, because, I cannot even begin to describe how much I Identify with that lyric, and, how perfectly Toledo delivers that one. Boldface is the best I can do.)
And, “Not Just What I Needed” and the mid-section “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” do the same thing of spoken word over rising instrumental.
Add to this formulaic approach, the album’s 70-minute runtime and we have a small problem. But other than cutting “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)” (the sing-song melody doesn’t quite mesh with the fast-paced song) and “Joe Goes to School” (wherein the Joe from that long title has an epiphany while looking at a horse and then figures out his life); and tightening the somewhat dirgey first section of “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” there’s not much else you can do. (Sucks that these three are how the album closes.)
Look: I complain about album length in every other review I have, exorcising the filler; tightening the sprawl. By now, it’s a fool’s errand and you’ve heard it enough. But the rest of these 60-some minutes is gold! Gold, I tell you. The short songs here are 4-6 minutes and they earn their lengths; “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” takes its time to explode, and once it does, it’s so worth it. And if the rest of these 60-some minutes is exhausting to listen to in one sitting, 1) don’t listen to it in one sitting and 2) it is only exhausting because practically every song goes from inception to climax to catharsis, and one can only catharsis-ize so often.
I’ve also complained elsewhere about the vague-ities of lyrics, especially ones that deal in irony and self-pity, that pervade the genre. None of that here: “I’ve been waiting all my life,” he begins, after a rousing chorus on “Not Just What I Needed” and a nice drum fill bringing us to the second verse. And then he goes: “I’ve been waiting for some real good porn.” Which is funny, because well, you weren’t expecting that. And it’s also sad, because some people are waiting for so and so to come out of retirement, or so and so to release their next film of epic proportions (heh). But what separates Toledo from a lot of other lyricists from Lightbulb and Lamp Post and Lamb Chop and other generic indie rock bands is how he follows that up: “Something with meaning, something fulfilling / I’d like to make my shame count for something.”
So have at the music, all 60-some minutes, motherfucker: check out the groove of “Fill in the Blank” (“ithurtsithurtsithurtithurts”) which competes with Parquet Courts on their own territory, beginning with someone introducing the band whose clearly hungover or reading off a cue card or the interplay between the drums and the horns on “Vincent” (“I’M LIKE THIS!!!!!!”). Or how “Cosmic Hero” starts with sobering horns, before introducing some of the album’s most kinetic guitar and bass lines. Dig the lo-fi backing vocals in the chorus of “Not Just What I Needed” that recalls Blur’s “M.O.R.,” but better: “Good people give good advice / Get a job, eat an apple, it’ll work itself out / It’s a thing (IT’S A THING) / It’s chemistry (IT’S CHEMISTRY) / It’s your own fault (IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT),” to say nothing of their short rant in the first chorus (“I KNOW WHAT I’M BEING CATERED TO!!!”), trailing off in the repeat. Elsewhere, “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” is one of the album’s catchiest, replete with more turn of phrases like “This isn’t sex, I don’t think / It’s just extreme empathy” and “They say the world is won, but if the world is won, how come you don’t come around anymore?”
Those aside, there are four songs here that I have been spinning endlessly throughout the summer and, will be spinning a lot more. The first, “Destroyed by Hippie Powers,” I already talked to. The others are as follows:
~”1937 State Park,” where the guitar parts – in contrast to a lot of the rest of the album – start heavy and only get heavier; the solo (announced “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”-style, with Toledo saying “Something is ringing / Death is playing his xylophone ribs for me”) is the album’s best, with a high-pitched electric guitar or perhaps keyboard emulating Death’s xylophone. After the cathartic conclusion and that solo, the third best moment in the song is the backing vocals going “At the state park! At the state park!” at the end of the first verse. The fourth best moment are the lyrics, “You and me are connected now / We were in one photograph and we don’t even look happy.”
~The one with the long title about drugs, which, percolates me with the – again – specificlyrical details: “Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms / I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit / In a stupid looking jacket”; “Filled with loathing and religious fervor / I laid on my friend’s bedroom floor for an hour / And tried not to piss my pants”; “Afraid of the cops when I was outside, afraid of my friends when I was inside.” But crucially, the song is funny: Toledo witnesses Jesus in a hallucination, who promptly goes “AWHHHHHOOOOOOOOO.” Elsewhere, he witnesses people “falling to pieces” to substances and he simply nods along.
~And, obviously, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.” Details worthy of consideration: (1) the opening line, “In the backseat of my heart,” delivered in that feathery falsetto, which sounds like Toledo’s on the verge of falling apart, especially in the context of the following line (“My love tells me I’m a mess”), delivered plainly. (2) how Will Toledo avoids easy self-deprecation that normally pervades this type of indie rock, “It comes and goes in plateaus / One month later I’m a fucking pro” vs. “One month later I’m a fucking joke.” (3) the ambiguity of the choruses, where Toledo manages to switch the song’s subject matter from drunk driving to killer whales in a natural way, and, crucially, makes you care about killer whales. I mean, why killer whales? Is it because of how they’re treated in captivity? Is it because they’re mean mammals (not otter level, but still)? Is it because killer whales sounds vaguely like killer wheels, and it actually relates to the rest of song? And broadly, how the song’s range of emotion captures, well, what it’s like to be drunk and trying to get home at 2 o’clock in the morning. “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS!” No, it doesn’t, regardless of whatever “it” and “like this” are referring to, specifically.
In an interview with Playboy, Will Toledo said:
“I was really trying to write songs that fired on all pistons and create a coherent album … I just wanted it to be strong enough that people were driven to listen to it.”
You fucking did it, brother. You fucking did it. Can’t wait to dig into your preceding twelve (!!!!!) records, and can’t wait to see you in September, hopefully, and can’t wait for the next one.