Home Music Rediscover: Parenthetical Girls: Privilege

Rediscover: Parenthetical Girls: Privilege

Things were going well for Zac Pennington and his Cascadian baroque pop band, Parenthetical Girls. For quite a while, they were just like any other rock band in the indiesphere — they released an album every other year, each one more accessible than the last; they made music with friends like Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart and future composer superstar Jherek Bischoff; they had their lyrics playfully borrowed by their friends/tourmates over at Los Campesinos!; they… okay, so they did some songs about complicated sexual exploits and formative pop singers, but what young band doesn’t? They were a great band, most of all — debut album (((GRRRLS))) and its follow-up Safe as Houses were underrated baroque lo-fi indie-pop, and their third, Entanglements, polished and tightened their sound and augmented it with a small orchestra of musicians.

And then, in wandered that terrible dragon called Ambition. Ambition is a bitch, and sometimes, you bite off more than you can chew. We all have examples in our own lives that fit a feeling of getting yourself in a little bit over your head. In music, this either shows itself in the form of delays (The Wrens’ follow-up to The Meadowlands, Dr. Dre’s Detox, The Chromatics Dear Tommy… oh, and of course, Smile and Chinese Democracy) or, if you’re a particularly silly kind of ambitious, in the form of unfulfilled promises (see: Sufjan Stevens). There are a billion other examples that could be used here; we promise, we know them, you can stop shouting “BUT WHAT ABOUT MY BLOODY VALENTINE!?” at your screen.

What Parenthetical Girls did next was deliciously simple: they challenged themselves to make and self-release five EPs over the course of 15 months–once a quarter). These EPs would each be a part of one grand series: Privilege. And here’s where things took a turn for the interesting: each EP would be released in an edition of 500, hand-sold by the band, each with a different player on the cover, and — most importantly — each would be hand-numbered with the blood of the player who graced the cover. None of this was a simple task and was largely helmed by Pennington himself, from the hiring of a phlebotomist to assist in the blood-numbering to the actual physical assembly and shipping of each piece. It was a knowing endeavor of excess, or — in his words — a “maximalist, out-of-pocket expression of music-as-object.”

Before we tackle the reality of Privilege’s creation, let’s talk about the actual music — it’s what matters, right? For those who may have a short attention span but can still trust the artist to self-edit, a 12-song edition called Privilege (Abridged) exists, but frankly, going this route robs you of some of the collection’s best songs — and, truly, the joy of hearing everything as a whole. For those who followed the band up until Privilege, a massive amount of the charm is hearing Pennington and longtime player-turned main collaborator Bischoff push all of their previously-designated sonic boundaries. Even as recently in the canon as Entanglements, the band’s music only went so far in any given direction ( but with Privilege, the previous palette gets a sheer quality increase — and with that, a full broadening of that palette.

The band’s newfound adventurousness yielded a truly bonkers number of career-best songs. Privilege projects many songs through a maximalist lens: songs like “On Death & Endearments,” “Be Careful Who You Dance With” and “Young Throats” are barn burners, each one with an entirely different mood and tone, and each one goes harder than almost anything the band had made to that point. What’s remarkable is that even on tracks that push the band’s boundaries — like the seductive “The Pornographer,” with a drum section that handily obliterates every single other rhythm section of a Parenthetical Girls song.

There’s also a considerable amount of beauty. This is the most predictable part of any Parenthetical Girls record; Bischoff-heads will see his fingerprints everywhere on Privilege, songs like “Weaknesses” and “The Privilege” are each a grand piece that ends up feeling as addicting as the rhapsodic noisiness of, say, “Present Perfect (An Epithalamium).” “Sympathy for Spastics” is among the finest, full of evocative lines like “Blue blood, well hung, and just a touch too young/ For all the gifts God’s blessed me with, she’s/ Thick as shit, pregnant with the myth/ Of a noble proletariat” and “When I’m not ashamed to say, even/ On our knees, it’s the sad simple dignities/ That charm the pants off me,” each line wrapped in a simple, aching piano repetition. Lyrics like these are unsurprising for Parenthetical Girls, and even less surprising considering the album’s title, but Pennington’s lyrics — always a swirl of sex and class conflict and emotional turmoil — are especially outstanding throughout these EPs.

At the heart of everything is Pennington’s lyrics. We can’t catalogue everything, even including the excellent lines in that last paragraph. They’re constantly funny — though incredibly vicious and spiteful, as in “Brimstone & Vaseline”: “A grown man of 38/ Jesus, act your age.” “Entitlements” similarly comes armed with the particularly venomous “Oh, rabbit rabbit/ Righteous white undergraduate/ Is there an oven that’s big enough to fit your head in?” which Pennington delivers dripping with mirth. As it has always been, some of the greatest lines are filthy as fuck, like “She’s had enough of falling in love/ The clever ones never make her cum” in “Portrait of a Reputation” or “You’re delicious and desperate/ And God knows where your dress went/ Still smug and smart/ Well, bless your precious heart” in “The Common Touch.” When he isn’t going for funny, he’s devastating: just two tracks in, “Someone Else’s Muse” is packed with remarkable lines, especially the chorus: “These pangs of pride/ As every eye moves on to you/ And though you quiet every room/ It’s sometimes hard to hear the truth.” The same is true of “The Privilege” with stanzas like “Forget my friends from the city/ They better bury me in Everett/ Leave what’s left of me by the bridge beside the sea/ I guess it’s time I’d gotten over it.” All of this is to say: when you’re a superbly talented songwriter and you give birth to a 21-track album made up of five individual EPs, you’re going to bring about a torrent of outstanding songs.

So, what went wrong? Well, to put it simply: one person took it upon themselves to record, construct, package, and ship 2,500 vinyl EPs — not to mention actually write the 21 songs themselves. Even in 2021, when self-releasing music is easier than ever, this prospect is laughably daunting, but the Privilege EP series began just as the world was still getting its sea legs. Add in the fact that Bischoff’s blossoming career resulted in less time for the two to record together in a shed behind his parents’ house in Bainbridge Island, WA, and it’s easy to see why that 15 months morphed into 32 months. For any fan at the time, this wait felt excruciating, but it’s admirable that they got all the way to the release of Privilege V: Portrait of a Reputation in October 2012.

There are many moments within Privilege that point to the band’s coming demise: “Pay your respects/ It’s grand, I guess, to treat this like a death,” Pennington sings on “Someone Else’s Muse.” One stanza really gets to the heart of the self-awareness and self-deprecation that lies at the heart of Parenthetical Girls: “Alas, we never stood a chance/ Bedsit solipsistic misfits, we petulant pains in the ass/ Dreams like this, they’re just not built to last/ The breast-fed & too well-fed left we two completely out-classed.” To Pennington, the band — which had “died many deaths” over the years — died three times during the creation of the Privilege EPs. Many of these songs are an outlet of grief for the approaching terminal point of Parenthetical Girls. It may be pointless to hold your breath for the band to ever return, but though it’s extremely easy to want more, it feels more fitting to treat (and grieve) it like a death — painlessly, at peace, after a full and remarkable life.

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