The Parenthetical Girls have spent the last 10 years in relative obscurity, known mostly to fans of kindred Pacific Northwest acts like Xiu Xiu, the Dead Science and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (with whom they’ve shared members, tours and a flair for the dramatic).
“‘Privilege (Abridged)’ boldly announces the Parenthetical Girls as one of the best indie-pop outfits working today.”
The Girls have tried a lot of sounds in that time, from confrontational noise freak-outs to baroque chamber-pop. Yet vocalist Zac Pennington’s songwriting has remained a constant throughout, his sketches of emotionally damaged characters only growing more vivid with time. In 2010, the band embarked on their most ambitious project to date: An album released serially over the course of three years, spread across five limited-edition vinyl EPs. It was thrilling watching the record, Privilege, slowly take shape, though it was apparent that many of its songs deserved a larger audience. And so the band has released Privilege (Abridged), a collection of 12 of Privilege’s tightest pop songs, sequenced to produce a 43-minute LP. The most cohesive and satisfying album the band has crafted to date, Privilege (Abridged) boldly announces the Parenthetical Girls as one of the best indie-pop outfits working today.
Opener “Evelyn McHale” serves as a concise statement of intent, repurposing pop iconography for the Girls’ own ends. With a lilting melody that sounds like a warped Roy Orbison tune and a titular reference to Andy Warhol’s serigraph of “the most beautiful suicide,” the song finds Pennington in full-on crooner mode, fantasizing about stardom from the gutter (“Train those charms toward the charts and we’ll be stars just the way that we are”). It’s stunning hearing the band unabashedly embrace its pop instincts like this, though as the next track proves, they’ve kept their edges sharp. “The Common Touch” subverts its own beauty, undercutting delicately arranged woodwinds, glockenspiel and piano with bursts of dissonance. Pennington’s delivery here is tightly coiled, alternating between unhinged and pleading as he spits lines like “You’re delicious and desperate/And God knows where your dress went” through his teeth.
A few of the songs on Privilege (Abridged) pay homage to titans of ’80s pop but few do so as overtly as “The Pornographer,” which borrows liberally from the bass line of Depeche Mode‘s “Personal Jesus,” while its lyrics push the themes of Violator toward lurid new extremes (“I’ve learned all my lines and marked all the cues/ So boys stand aside/ Before I’ve thought this through”). “Weaknesses,” meanwhile, focuses on bedroom drama of a more private nature, pairing swirling synths with the album’s most affecting narrative. Chronicling the depths of infatuation, the song’s narrator vacillates between self-deprecation (“I know he’d know some perfect thing to say”) and impertinence (“provided I might stay another night”). Toward the end, the protagonist asks a question that could as easily be read as Pennington speaking directly to the listener: “Tell me, is this as tawdry as it sounds?”
“Few songwriters working today are penning character studies this detailed.”
The album’s penultimate song and namesake, “The Privilege” is arguably its best. Summoning a dry baritone, Pennington broods over autistic sisters, prodigal fathers and boys “who grew into embarrassments of men” as mournful synths provide a suffocating backdrop. Closing track “Curtains” feels more subdued, pairing dated synth-bass sounds with echo-laden snare hits to produce a hazy melancholia — think Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack bolstered by the Junior Boys‘ drum machine. Pennington is unusually detached here as befits the song’s theme of emotional exhaustion, throwing out sly references to iconic Morrissey lines (“A slap on the wrist,” “Let’s not speak of love”) as he stumbles toward the album’s conclusion.
While the Parenthetical Girls have always written pop songs, in the past they’ve either leaned too far left (the band’s early, homespun experiments) or too far right (the ornate constructions of Entanglements) to really hit their mark. On Privilege (Abridged), the Girls finally find a happy medium, writing music that’s satisfyingly dramatic without feeling overly grandiose. Much of the credit here is due to the work of Jherek Bischoff, who has really flourished as a composer in recent years and brings all of his talents to bear on these songs. But ultimately, it’s Pennington’s writing that really sets Privilege (Abridged) apart as one of the best indie-pop records in recent memory. Few songwriters working today are penning character studies this detailed; Pennington’s lyrics here often recall those of Morrissey or Stuart Murdoch. And while so many contemporary indie-pop bands are happy just to ape the pop classicism of the Smiths and Belle & Sebastian, Pennington channels the sinister undercurrent that lent those bands their depth. Diving headfirst into sordid tales of infatuation, exploitation and desperation, he diagrams his characters’ vulnerabilities with a novelist’s eye for detail. This is perhaps his defining quality as a songwriter: In a subculture that fetishizes childhood and naïveté, he is unafraid to write songs that are unmistakably, unapologetically adult. The best indie-pop bands always acknowledged that emotional dysfunction extends beyond the schoolyard. With Privilege (Abridged), the Parenthetical Girls take their rightful place among those ranks.
The Parenthetical Girls’ Privilege (Abridged) is out February 19 via Slender Means Society/Marriage Records. Stream the album below.