REVIEW: Parenthetical Girls – Privilege (Abridged)

Take pleasure in the simple things you break along the way…

The only time I really remember how long ago Entanglements came out is when I really stop to think about it. It came out just before the start of autumn in 2008, and the album very quickly became a go-to record for me. My new girlfriend labelled the album as “circus music,” based on the flow of album highlight “A Song for Ellie Greenwich,” and even after hearing that music regularly for the last four years, she’s never adjusted to the sounds that Parenthetical Girls make. Entanglements was my companion for the incredibly nasty winter that we saw in 2008, and somehow, I’ve never been able to disconnect the sound of songs like “Windmills of Your Mind” or “Avenue of Trees” from the sensation of watching snow drift down from the sky in the middle of the afternoon. That album influenced my thinking to the point that I actually quoted “Four Words” at a funeral during this period: “Bless we with breath, lest we forget.” I don’t ever know if that line means what I thought it meant, but hasn’t stopped me from adoring it.

It’s not quite accurate to say that it has taken over four years to get a new record from Parenthetical Girls. In that four years, they undertook the weighty task of releasing Privilege, a series of five EPs, meant to have come out once each quarter starting in ’10. That project finally finished this past September. Having thought that the process would take a little over a year, I abstained from listening to any of the EPs, so that I could listen to it as one cohesive piece once it was completed. So, really, because of my hopefulness, my wait for a new Parenthetical Girls album was almost exactly four years. Was that wait worth it? Absolutely.

One of the things to really take note of is that the songs of Privilege (Abridged) were recorded over the course of four years, and trickled out slowly. I realize that I’ve just discussed this, but it changes the dynamic of a lot of things here, when you realize that the first track, “Evelyn McHale,” was made a year before “Careful Who You Dance With,” which comes just two tracks later, and over two years before “Curtains,” which finishes the record forty minutes later. Parenthetical Girls feel like they’ve undergone a metamorphosis over the course of this record, and when you narrow things down to the timeline, it’s no wonder why. But what is truly a wonder about that timeline is that Zac Pennington’s songwriting abilities never falter, and each song is just as powerful as the last. The complete Privilege is an hour-and-a-half odyssey, in which each track fits in just right, but even when listening to the condensed version you can’t help but feel like this exact album was always the plan.

It’s impossible to ignore Pennington’s flair for the over-the-top. Indeed, this has always been one of the band’s best assets; it’s hard to not to find a lot of charm in lines like “She’s thick as shit, and pregnant with the myth of a noble proletariat” (“Sympathy For Spastics,” far and away the most flat-out beautiful song in the bunch), or “She was always this heartsick autistic kid” (“The Privilege”), and the worlds these lines inhabit are hard to not want to investigate further. That aforementioned flair makes him one of the most adept world-builders in baroque pop music, where people still use phrases like “noble proletariat,” but also have to worry about getting their heads kicked in because they danced with the wrong person. The stories here feel timeless in a lot of ways, where all of the players are, more or less, always doing exactly what they need to do to stay alive – no matter how dubious it might be.

Even after getting acquainted with the bigger picture, it’s hard to not want more from these songs and characters. This is not to say that anything here is lacking in any way; far from it. It’s a mark of the abilities of the players that I wish each song were at least twice as long (or more, in the case of the aforementioned “Sympathy for Spastics,” which clocks in at a criminal two-and-a-half minutes), because I want to hear more about these people. Even the music behind these songs feels like another set of characters entirely: one can’t help but marvel at the stomping drum beats of “The Pornographer,” with drummer/octopus Paul Alcott tightening the tension with every beat, to the point where it can be almost disorienting. The keyboard work of Amber Smith works as the perfect counterpoint to Alcott’s cacophony, sounding persistently behind the times in all the best ways (and it’s always wonderful when she shows up to sing backup – most notably during “The Common Touch” and “Curtains”).

While listening to the complete Privilege, I came across an interview with Zac Pennington, in which he was asked what made him decide to make a series of EPs in the first place. He answered that – and I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the exact interview – he’d heard that the best way to unblock yourself was to do a series of some sort. That series may have taken longer than originally planned, but it can’t be said that we don’t have anything to show for all of the waiting. It’s entirely possible that Parenthetical Girls may never make a statement as grand as the one they made with Privilege, but I really don’t think they need to. This album is perfect – really, all they need to do from this point on is just make records as best as they can.

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