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The Outrage, Angst And Optimism Of Parquet Courts' 'Wide Awake!' Track By Track

Parquet Courts' album, <em>Wide Awake, </em>is out May 18
Courtesy of the artist
Parquet Courts' album, Wide Awake, is out May 18

Parquet Courts' fifth album, Wide Awake! is a turning point for the band. The four guys based in New York made conscious attempts to push their music out of their habitual tendencies toward aggressive rock and wound up with their most interesting record to date, with the help of producer Brian Burton (Danger Mouse).

The songs on Wide Awake! are written by guitarist and singer Andrew Savage (A. Savage) and Austin Brown, who also plays guitar and sings in the band. Brown says he found inspiration in the music of singer Grace Jones, reggae artist Augustus Pablo and the funk band Parliament. For his part, Savage says he drew on the music of '80s American punk, such as Flipper, The Dicks, Big Boys and Minutemen.

For this track-by-track breakdown of the new album, A. Savage and Austin Brown share the inspirations and personal moments that went into the process of making Wide Awake! The songs take on, among other things, white privilege, violence in America, economic inequality and so much more, all while ultimately making a plea for love.

1. Total Football

"We are conductors of sound, heat and energy" are the first lines of this record and I think they are fitting. The first element of "Total Football" to come to me was the intro and outro sections. In fact, it was probably the first new thing I had written for Parquet Courts since "Human Performance." I remember coming up with it and playing it over and over again on guitar. I like songs like Poison Idea's "Made to Be Broken," which have these catchy, mid-tempo intro and outro parts and a faster, hardcore song sandwiched between. "Total Football" isn't exactly a hardcore song, but that's the imagery I see when I hear it. Kids stage-diving and creepy crawling. Definitely a lot of [hardcore punk] youth crew influence toward the end, with the gang vocals, and the vocals on the outro. The bass line of the song was inspired by Devo. I had these parts written for the longest time before [adding] the pre-chorus and chorus bits. The lyrics take the form of a manifesto, which is fitting for the first song on this album I think. Bold and declarative. -- A. Savage

2. Violence

There are lots of Parquet Courts songs about American violence, but this is the most explicit. This track is our way of reacting to the amount of violence one has to bear witness to as an American. As we are numbed to it, the appropriate level of anger and mourning becomes increasingly difficult. Music has always been a cathartic tool for me. I wanted to express anger without resorting to the punk idiom of anger that we've perhaps become known for. I also think it was appropriate to honor black artists in a song about American violence, which is disproportionately directed at black lives. Inherently because of this, it's also about white privilege and my complicity in [the] power imbalance. This one started with the bass line that we looped and I just started spitting words out of my notebook on top of it... and we were vamping over it the whole time. But Brian [Burton, aka Danger Mouse], the producer, encouraged [bassist] Sean [Yeaton] and I to work two new bass lines, and from there we rewrote the song to have different parts. The deep voice after the chorus is an ode to Funkadelic, one of my favorite bands. -- A. Savage

3. Before The Water Gets Too High

The first instance of dub influence on this record. That strange sounding instrument you hear is called an Omnichord and it was made by Suzuki as a user-friendly musical accompaniment instrument. Sean helped me record the original demo for this one in his barn, with me on Omnichord, late one night in Pennsylvania where he lives (yes that's right). A few days later [guitarist and singer] Austin [Brown] laid down the bass line. It's a pretty gloomy song, warning about a potential apocalypse scenario that we are all constantly distracting ourselves from. -- A. Savage

Ebru Yildiz / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

4. Mardi Gras Beads

Well, it's no stretch to say that it is a love song, with [the] status "it's complicated." The love in "Mardi Gras Beads" is a resignation to commitment — the idea that meaning and love is where you find it. It's about a love that has been stalking the protagonist throughout his history of song. Note the many references to music, songwriting and familiar, past lyrics. You might say these lyrics have been repressed and yearning to be heard, but I wouldn't say that - I wrote the damn song, other people can write about it. -- Austin Brown

5. Almost Had To Start A Fight

A song about the boundaries we set for our own civility in the face of radical right-wing agitation. Is violence ever the appropriate reaction to this type of hostility? Am I a brute for taking faint joy in watching Richard Spencer get punched? Maybe to be American is to be a brute on both sides of the political spectrum. I haven't been in a physical fight in a long, long time, but had to stop myself from starting one recently. Whether I took the high road or whether I chickened out is still something I still wonder about. — A. Savage

6. In And Out Of Patience

It was Brian Burton's insistence that this song, and the previous one, be one track. But they are definitely two different songs, so I'm treating them as such here. On an album with so much grand anger, the grievances on this song are more petty. Just sort of a classic punk song about being pissed off at whatever stands in your way. This is one of the only songs that sounds good when I've lost my voice, because I can sort of channel Blitz and turn it into a proper Oi! song innit. -- A. Savage

7. Freebird 2

The first running title of this song was "Credits For a Film About the Vietnam War." Then somebody at some point in the process says, "this sounds like 'Freebird 2.'" We get a lot of cavemen that come to Parquet Courts gigs and shout "Freebird" as if they are pioneers of this shitty form of heckling. I don't know how calling this song "Freebird 2" is going to affect this situation. If you're reading NPR, chances are you come to our show and politely say nothing, so I'll move on. This song with a silly title is about growing up in economic uncertainty, and the sort of colorful problems that go with coming up that way — and how they follow you your whole life and sometimes you just don't have that many people who can relate to them. Addiction, turmoil, incarceration and mental instability were themes of my childhood. Anyway, it's about me and the way I was raised, coming from dysfunction while not letting dysfunction define you. -- A. Savage

8. Normalisation

There is a struggle that we all have to go through right now and that is deciding which parts of the world around us are acceptable and which are not. What do we call normal? What do we call outrageous and unacceptable? It's easier to let outrageous things become normal and sometimes it can be exhausting keeping things tidy, but this is just an important practice of mental health today. As is dancing, and you can use this center big beat section to do just that. -- A. Savage

Ebru Yildiz / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

9. Back To Earth

This is what it sounds like when you combine Townes Van Zandt, The Upsetters, and Augustus Pablo. It's a song about death and love, as stated in the chorus. I think about death a lot. "Back To Earth" feels like a recounting of a person's life, and thinking the struggles, and the lessons learned. It's meant to offer an optimism — that although your body will be buried (probably sooner than you think), you can offer change through love, and never through violence, commerce, or hate. -- Austin Brown

10. Wide Awake

Wow, here we are, the titular track of this album. This is a punk song. If you don't believe me go listen to [the band] Big Boys. -- A. Savage

11. NYC Observation

One of my favorite songs on the record for sure, this song is about living in New York and having to witness poverty on daily basis. More so, it's about the sort of ethical exercise you have to go through to walk past it. Poverty is a type of violence. We used to have a practice space at Myrtle and Broadway in Brooklyn which was ground zero for the K2 epidemic. Lifeless bodies and zombie-like faces of addiction were always around the intersection. Another casualty of not having access to healthcare and addiction services, compounded with New York City's severe drug laws. -- A. Savage

12. Extinction

A song about self-improvement and examination. The three strophes in the song resemble the beginning, middle and end of a journey. I like when a short, poppy, upbeat song makes it on the end of a record (see "Fragile" on Wire's Pink Flag). -- A. Savage

13. Death Will Bring Change

This is a song about grieving. When I was 20-years old my younger sister died in a tragic school bus accident. This is a song that I have wanted to write ever since that moment, and on this record, I was able to. The final stage of grief is acceptance, not liberation. Death will bring change. It removes your naivety and leaves you feeling less than a whole person, yet heavier. This is a song about how I changed. -- Austin Brown

14. Tenderness

And last but not least, "Tenderness." I had this piano melody for ages, and it took me a long time to come to [the] realization that it could be a Parquet Courts song. The vocal performance is inspired by Divine. I love her music and the raspiness of her voice over a disco beat. It's super punk — a fabulous woman who makes no effort to hide that she is genetically a middle-aged man. Has a bit of an Andrea-True-Connection "More, More, More" feel to it, which is one of my favorite songs. I had the idea of a song that could some day be a classic karaoke song. This song is supposed to complimentary to "Total Football." Very similar concept lyrically, but sort of the dance end of the spectrum, contrasting the hardcore that influenced "Total Football" (a type of dance music in its own right I suppose). Like "TF" the lyrics are very manifesto-like, speaking of "we" and not just "I." I think both songs are optimistic, which is important, because optimism is the beginning and the end of this record. -- A. Savage

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In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.
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