The story of the Parenthetical Girls begins somewhat inauspiciously, in Everett, Washington. It's a place that bandleader Zac Pennington describes as a "failed mill town," before noting (parenthetically) that it is "considerably less romantic than that manipulative phrasing is meant to suggest."
Pennington got out as soon as he could, moving to Seattle in the early '00s. There, he turned Swastika Girls, his home-recording project begun in Everett with childhood friend Jeremy Cooper, into a workable, if still painfully raw, live band, eventually rechristening it Parenthetical Girls; he launched a monthly event, Slender Means Society, which eventually developed into a small record label; he wore a lot of women's blouses and velveteen jackets. He left Seattle for Portland in late 2003, throwing himself a going-away party styled as a funeral, for which he spent the entire night lying dead silent inside a coffin, coming alive to bid the crowd farewell via a pre-recorded video projected between bands.
Pennington also wrote for the Seattle's The Stranger and then the Mercury, and rereading his old works of music criticism, one can see Pennington shaping himself.
Pennington has invented himself over the years as an effete indie-rock fop, a semi-androgynous art snob with eventually realized pretensions to scene-shaking. His lyrics are as wordy and precious as anything his editors ever let into print, and his band's music walks a tightrope between retro pop classicism and experimental outbursts.
Parenthetical Girls' first two albums, 2004's (((GRRRLS))) and 2006's Safe as Houses, are to varying, disquieting degrees as autobiographical as they are imaginative. Each of these albums feature, for their cover art, drawings of Pennington as identical pre-pubescent boy/girl twins. On the first album, these twins are in their underwear about to hold hands; on the second, they're naked in bed, looking respectively terrified and titillated, poised on the verge of fucking a mirror's reflection of himself.
Asked if he's consciously cultivated an exaggerated version of himself, Pennington subtly reframes the question: "Do you mean, 'Are you trying to seem like an asshole, or are you really that much of an asshole?'"
And then he answers: "I guess I don't really know anymore, to be honest. I don't really think of Parenthetical Girls as just some element of a greater scheme of self-aggrandizement. If it were, the whole thing would be a lot more depressing than it already is, considering the farm leagues within which we operate. I think people tend to approach us with a certain degree of cynicism—to think that what we do is somehow disingenuous, or some kind of put-on. And that's valid—no one in the band is particularly concerned with up keeping some standard of 'authenticity' or whatever," he says.
"But, I mean, fuck it: I do like snobby shit," Pennington continues. "And I do admire a lot of affected, self-aggrandizing pop musicians. And I do choose to sing like a lady sometimes. All of these things tend to lend themselves to a certain level of conscious cultivation."
Whether or not one finds fault in Pennington's aesthetics or contrivances, his strategies have paid off most handsomely on Parenthetical Girls' latest album, Entanglements. For one thing, the album's songwriting marks a significant step forward for Pennington, trading distorted autobiographical shocks for a loose album-length narrative arc of a presumably more fictional bent, which untangles a love affair at least four years on, between two actors whose genders aren't always clear and whose ages are 21 and 10 at the affair's inception. The pedophilic gross-out factor is somewhat ameliorated by Pennington's fascination with permanently suspended adolescence, such that the 14- and 25-year-old lovers could generously be seen as the same. Or perhaps the album's interest in quantum physics (e.g., the Jeanette Winterson-referencing "Gut Symmetries") allows for some kind of temporal relativism.
Most significantly, Entanglements sounds simply gorgeous, full of grand orchestral gestures and tenacious pop hooks, everything just right in its proper place. The album is the first recorded with Parenthetical Girls as a full band, rounded out by Eddy Crichton, Rachael Jensen, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Carlson. Pianos, xylophones, strings, woodwinds, harps, and percussion turn from jaunty and carefree flights to maudlin and ominous dirges from one song or verse to the next, from the cartoonishly drunken oompah of "Unmentionables" to the ascendant bridge of "The Former" ("you strive for happiness, I guess...").
Entanglements is a stunning, complicated album, and a rewarding realization of everything Pennington's been working toward over the years. One only wonders what he'll make of himself next.