Parenthetical Girls: Entanglements

This Portland-based band and favorite of Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart has been known for sonic grit and lo-fi electronic ventures, but for its third record the group has employed a chamber ensemble and explored the realm of orchestral pop.

Listening to


, the surprising 180 delivered by Parenthetical Girls, is like bearing witness to San Francisco’s Valentine’s Day pillow fight, which attempts to reduce to absurdity the romance-obsessed holiday by engaging in a flash-mob feather battle. A side effect of the melee is that it exposes the propensity of ordinary San Franciscan yuppies to, every now and then, indulge in a safe dose of the abnormal. The Portland, Ore.-based Parenthetical Girls, rather abnormal themselves, recently headlined a show at a venue that’s probably a Valentine’s Day enabler, a little pillow-cushion factory in San Francisco Mission district. The band and crowd alike seemed thrilled by the setlong percussion they provided for their Portland contemporaries Au by banging on pots, pans, and cymbals strewn on the ground. It was a fitting scene for someone familiar with the band’s aural massacres on their first two albums, which recall the melodic transgressions of Jamie Stewart’s Xiu Xiu– unsurprising given his past involvement in their work– but now that the band is back home and releasing


, the group has turned their casual perversion to orchestral music.

Frontman Zac Pennington is no Van Dyke Parks– hell, even the record’s press release concedes that he’s a “relative non-musician”– but multi-instrumentalist collaborators Matt Carlson, Rachael Jensen, Eddy Crichton, and others who have joined since the early days of debut


have helped to direct an entire chamber ensemble. From the opening orchestral warm-up kicking off opener “Four Words” to the last dying wisps of baroque strings on “This Regrettable End”, there’s nary a guitar to be found. In place of the guitars, lo-fi electronic noise, and nontraditional arrangements found on


and 2006’s

Safe as Houses

, the ensemble they’ve cobbled together recasts Pennington’s demented little sex ditties as orchestral pop of the 1960s. “Lushly orchestrated” is usually a cliché, but few other labels approach the productional overkill laid slapdash all over the mix.

Witness the sheer madness of “GUT Symmetries”, a rhapsodic sort of love song that progresses from orchestral gamelan to carnival music in a few moments, including a lyrical reference to Kate Bush’s “The Kick Inside” tacked on at the end. In fact, random pop culture references pop up all over the disc, such as the semi-pornographic reference to a Microphones song tucked into “Unmentionables”, and the record is also rife with instrumental musical references. Like a Tarantino flick,


is a love note to the excesses of the past, penned in the same platinum ink as forebears like the Bacharach and Scott Walker. But to call it “baroque pop” doesn’t really get at the relentless assault of attention deficit old-timeyness of, say, “A Song For Ellie Greenwich”, the ethereal highlight named for the girl-group songwriter.

The record is perhaps a more extreme a transformation than that of Patrick Wolf, whose flamboyant and distinctive vibrato also flirted with orchestral pop on last year’s

The Magic Position

. Pennington, who at one point roomed with Jona Bechtolt (aka YACHT), seems firmly entrenched in the fertile strata of the Portland underground, and has surrounded himself with the residual talent of the scene. He perhaps doesn’t have the studied charisma of Wolf, nor maybe the pinpoint pop songwriting chops to fully pull off the makeover, but Pennington’s oblique and winning compositions and his bandmates’ imaginative execution manage to pry at the idea of perfectly normal baroque pop becoming, for just over half an hour, just a little abnormal. It’s too bad that, now that Parenthetical Girls are touring with a chamber ensemble, the pillow factory is no longer a practical venue.

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