In an age of diminishing record sales and ceaseless self-promotion, bands are desperate to be liked. Bland niceness is the consequence, measured in bromidic interviews, unctuous stage talk and efficient but colourless musicianship. So it was oddly refreshing to see the four members of Parquet Courts take their positions at the Electric Ballroom with barely a word of greeting and expressions that seemed to suggest the audience was a hindrance to overcome rather than a cash cow to be cajoled to the merchandise stall.
The New Yorkers (three Texan transplants and an ex-Bostonian) play twisty, clever, abrasive punk rock. You can hear echoes of other bands – The Strokes, Pavement, Sonic Youth, The Fall – but the foursome have a fierceness of purpose that gives them their own identity. And at the Electric Ballroom, as part of the NME Awards season of gigs, their obduracy was the catalyst for an intense and unyielding show.
They opened not with the crowd-pleasing choice of a snappy number from their album Light Up Gold but instead an obscure psych-rock track, “Racing Through the Dark”, which foiled would-be moshers with a head-nodding groove. Guitarist Andrew Savage had his eyes shut as though in a reverie. On the other side of the stage his co-guitarist Austin Brown observed him closely, as though about to embark on a long passage of jamming. The moshpit milled around confusedly. What, no jumping around?
But the tempo soon picked up. The band skidded through “Borrowed Time” with impeccable timing, pell-mell rhythms outrunning lyrics about boredom like thoughts racing around a slacker’s head. Brown and Savage took turns singing, the former with a drawl, the latter shouting, no longer in a reverie. Other tracks from Light Up Gold were dashed out in all their jittery brevity – yet they were apt to suffer mini-seizures too, bassist Sean Yeaton and drummer Max Savage forging ahead with Can-like repetition as the guitars collapsed into howls of distortion.
The lyrics were almost unintelligible, an act of opacity from the Mark E. Smith school of stagecraft. The ending was even more confrontational, the band funnelling all their energies into a sustained blast of hardcore punk, Savage yelling furiously over the din, even the moshpit struggling to keep up. It was a bracing challenge to the current climate of musical niceness. Of course there was no encore.