Everything you need to know about Privilege (Abridged), the fourth album by arch Portland clever clogs Parenthetical Girls can be found in the video for their recent single ‘The Pornographers’. In it, frontman and band mastermind Zac Pennington - a curly-topped waif of an overgrown boy-child - attempts to mime the words while, just out of shot, he is distracted by some, um, oral stimulation. Meanwhile the song the clip is illustrating pounds out the riff from the Smiths ‘What Difference Does It Make’, slowed down and glammy, with Pennington mouthing the line ”I’m still fond of you” lest we mistake homage for blatant rip off, as the song and its singer both come to a neat climax before our eyes. It’s an impactful and sexy idea, although one that bears suspicious resemblance to photographer Clayton Cubitt’s
And there’s, ahem, the rub with Parenthetical Girls. Privilege is all of the things that that video is: it’s sexy, artistic, dramatic, indulgent, fractionally creepy and for an 'experimental indie band' (sic) deeply derivative. None of these are necessarily bad points, but if subjected to the wrong frame of mind they can all be massively grating.
That said, there’s plenty to like here. Pennington’s voice is wonderful, possessing a throbbing vibrato that is handily also sexy, artistic, dramatic, indulgent and fractionally creepy. In a single human voice that’s something to enjoy. He tips his hat often to Morrissey, Patrick Wolf, Antony Hegarty and Rufus Wainwright, whose camp melodrama is all over this record. There’s some delicious melodies going on here too: opener ‘Evelyn McHale’ manages to sound bewildered and sexual at once, while ‘For All The Final Girls’ is distant and melancholic, both remain weirdly catchy. Elsewhere parts of the record do feel genuinely avante-garde, in a second hand sort of a way. ‘The Common Touch’ clashes folky, burbling strings, a Philip Glass-ish bed of breathless vocals and a distorted bass chorus ripped out of an early Pavement song to marvelous effect.
There are references everywhere. ‘Careful Who You Dance With’ runs off a thumpy synth line nabbed from New Order, ‘A Note To Self’ is pure Smithspop with, tellingly, an Adam Ant drum break slammed in the middle, while the closing ‘Curtains’ (pun probably intentional) is built on the foundations of The Cars’ ‘Drive’. The sheer volume of alt. Eighties references can only be intentional, and its presentation though occasionally effective does feel rather pleased with itself. For the most part though it sort of works - most things here do. Sometimes, as on the beguiling and lovely ‘Sympathy for Spastics’ they work really well, though other moments, the MGMT/Arcade Fire aping rave up of ‘Young Throats’ for example, barely scrape a pass.
This is by turns a wonderful and deeply irritating record, charming and frustrating in equal measure. A lighter touch and a toning down could have worked wonders - what’s here isn’t a million miles away from the Magnetic Fields - but while their work is marked with elegance and wit, Parenthetical Girls are far more likely to follow every idea to it’s logical maximised extent, their clever-clever-look-at-me-aren’t-I-weird art school schtick splattering imaginary man juice over potentially lovely pop songs.
But then that’s probably the point, and your enjoyment of this record will rest on your tolerance for pop music as self-aware art project. It’s not even the full picture- that (abridged) in the title is a reference to the grander scheme, of which this is just a sample- a selection of 12-inch EPs released across two years. Whether this is the cream of that collection you’ll have to investigate for yourselves. If you can bear to.
5Marc Burrows's Score