Great Underappreciated Songbook

In the autumn I saw Parquet Courts in concert. The adulation they received from their young fans got me thinking about underappreciated American rock bands. Allow me to elucidate—with reference to the works of The Walkmen, Dirty Projectors and more.

Back in the autumn I saw Parquet Courts in concert, at the Kentish Town Forum. As is traditional for the venue in question, it was preceded by a glorious lamb shawarma at E. Mono, Giles Coren’s local, vaunted haunt. Less traditional was the nature in which I enjoyed the gig. At times, it seemed my companion and I were the oldest members of the audience in our field of vision. There were kids, kids and teenagers, moshing to this glorious, literate rock music, and I felt a pang of regret that, at their age, I may well have been at a Muse concert. (Equally, in my mid-teens I did also see Modest Mouse, so my cred is just about intact.)

Those young people at the Forum had stumbled across a band who ought to join the pantheon of great American songwriters. Many more in that pantheon may remain strangely unloved on these shores. To me, this is puzzling. Many Brits could name a song or two by Vampire Weekend, but would they have any idea that frontman Ezra Koenig used to play saxophone in the hyperactive, hyper-literate Dirty Projectors? At a push, some Brits might have watched Portlandia on Netflix, but would they twig that leading lady Carrie Brownstein was once in the seminal all-girl punk band Sleater-Kinney?

Koenig, in his pre-Vampire Weekend days, also worked as an intern for The Walkmen. Whether by coincidence or not, the ex-brains of Koenig’s band, Rostam Batmanglij, recently recorded an album with The Walkmen’s frontman Hamilton Leithauser. (The band is currently on indefinite hiatus.) Theirs is a wonderful creation, full of should-be would-be shooby-doo-wop standards. The opening track, which quotes the titular phrase “I had a dream that you were mine” (and then deflates it, adding, “I’ve had that dream a thousand times”), is homespun, loose-fitting and instantly familiar. Throughout the album, blue notes on the piano and vintage instrumentation abound. There are undercurrents of very modern bass and crunchy programmed rhythms, à la Ariel Rechtshaid, but these don’t jar.

Dial back to February 2004 and The Walkmen had just released their breakthrough album, Bows + Arrows. The penultimate track, “Thinking Of A Dream I Had”, oddly foreshadows the name of that collaborative album. In execution, it’s charmingly ramshackle, with verses of floor toms and ragged guitar veering into a bridge driven by a plummy Hammond organ. Occasionally, they sound like an actual functioning band. The game-changing single from that album, “The Rat”, is a barrelling, pummelling affair. That overdriven, punished Hammond organ, and the breakneck energy that shoots through the song, are unforgettable. But despite being light years away from the refinement of I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, The Walkmen’s early albums are peas in the same pod. All these works bear the indelible mark of songwriters instantly at ease behind a bar-room piano, a vintage Gretsch, or a beaten-up Rickenbacker. They are firmly in the firmament of great, American rock music.

A year after the release of Bows + Arrows, Ezra Koenig would have been touring with Dirty Projectors. Did he spot, even then amidst the art-school chaos, the pop sensibility lurking in the ink bottle of Dave Longstreth? Swing Lo Magellan, released in 2012, is Dirty Projectors’ most perfectly realised album, and also perhaps their most Beatles-indebted. The pairing of “Maybe That Was It” and “Impregnable Question” at the album’s fulcral point succeeds in showing two classic sides of the Fab Four. The first song evokes the group at their most psychedelic, with a searing lead guitar line and helter-skelter drumming. Longstreth’s arrhythmic wailing refuses to be tied down, and there are only snatches of a recognisable beat. The second track is sweetly sung by Longstreth and his then-girlfriend Amber Coffman atop Lennon-esque piano chords. The arrangement is unadorned: an occasional shimmer of tambourine, and a mellifluous bassline that harks back to McCartney.

I’ve previously remarked that, when you get down to it, so much modern rock is derivative of either Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones. When Sleater-Kinney released their 2005 going-away LP The Woods, critics couldn’t make enough of the comparisons to Led Zep, for sure. But in this instance, the critics were unfairly deriding of a band they saw as no-longer pioneering.

Take, for instance, the concluding side of the album. “Let’s Call It Love” has been called an eleven-minute guitar solo, a paean to the build-up, a sort of thematic opposite to Wild Beasts’ “End Come Too Soon”. It’s not just about the guitar, however. The shapeshifting drums, which careen from tumbling-rumbling through to motorik groove (via all-out wig-out), play their part in the song’s brilliance. So too do Corin Tucker’s feral, banshee-like vocals. It’s a dizzying survey of the rock landscape, with producer Dave Fridmann serving as the co-driver, delivering pace notes to the three rally drivers in the band. The unsighted crest—the masterstroke—is the segue into the album’s closer, “Night Light”. Atop a roiling arrangement which brings to life the “bitter and bloody world” of Tucker’s description, the band spin a tale of a mythical protector who can “spin off the rays of the sun”. For me, the songs come as a pair: two of the gutsiest, most brazen, most sophisticated rock anthems I know; the foreplay and then the release. Find me a Led Zeppelin album that played such a blinder.

The conversation we’ve been having would be redundant without mentioning Spoon. The Austin-rooted band will shortly release Hot Thoughts, their ninth album, and the songs previewed thus far hint at a dancier, more electronic swerve. Undoubtedly, beneath the synths and the (Dave Fridmann-assisted) sparkle, the band will not have resiled from rock music’s strut and swagger. “Can I Sit Next To You”, for example, unspools from the same ball of thread as “I Turn My Camera On”. The effect is not unlike that of Arctic Monkeys’ sly reinvention on AM—consider the first time you heard the thud and crack of “Do I Wanna Know”—or, indeed, of Dirty Projectors on Dirty Projectors. There’s a fresh injection of wonder, but the songwriting chops are still present and correct.

Claw open the carapace of the charts. Yes, R&B and electronic music have had a monopoly of late, but this has served only to cloister the near-history of guitar-based music in America, not to destroy or denude it. As the œuvres of bands like The Walkmen and Sleater-Kinney, Dirty Projectors and Spoon attest, this history is rich and deeply pleasurable. It can be modulated and shot through with experimentation, but within, the centre can hold.

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