Too precious for Everett. (That’s Pennington on the right.)

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."

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"It's one of those perfect-storm places," Pennington goes on to say in an e-mail from his adopted home of Portland on the eve of a trip to Bainbridge Island to record. "It's got that blend of zero ambition and general hostility that, to people of a certain temperament, can be extremely motivating—as in, 'Get out now!'"

Pennington got out as soon as he could, moving to Seattle in 2000. Here he turned Swastika Girls, his home recording project begun in Everett with childhood friend Jeremy Cooper (formerly of Display), into a workable if still painfully raw live band, eventually rechristened Parenthetical Girls. He launched Slender Means Society, an organization that hosted a series of themed shows at the now-defunct Secluded Alley Works (themes included Love, Children's Stories, the Apocalypse, and so on; performers included the Microphones, the Blow, the Dead Science, and many others), and 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 2003, throwing himself a going-away party styled as a funeral, where he spent the entire night lying dead-silent inside a coffin, coming alive to bid the crowd farewell only via prerecorded video projected between bands.

Pennington also wrote for The Stranger (and later went on to be the music editor of the Portland Mercury), and rereading his old works of music criticism, one can see Pennington shaping himself. As a writer, he was given to a somewhat wordy preciousness. He made himself the partial subject of his reviews. He fancied himself a music snob and an acerbic contrarian. He displayed both an affection for pop and an affectation for the avant-garde (his paeans to the traditionalist songcraft of Belle and Sebastian or the Brill Building balanced by his championing of such willfully arty acts—and friends of his—as Xiu Xiu, Display, Die Monitr Batss, and so forth). His favorite subjects—ones he returned to over the years—included the Decemberists and Tracy + the Plastics, acts that traded heavily in the magical power of self-invention/transformation (the Decemberists' Colin Meloy left rural Montana roots to become Portland's preeminent Victorian bard; Tracy + the Plastic's Wynne Greenwood escaped suburban Redmond to refashion herself as an entire trio of new personae).

For his part, Pennington has invented himself over the years as an effete indie-rock fop and a semiandrogynous art snob with eventually realized pretensions to scene shaking. (Stranger contemporary Charles Mudede refers to him as "Master Pennington, a dandy, but not the Oscar Wilde sort, the kind you find in Dickens novels.") 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. He's made himself a musician essentially through sheer force of will alone (the name Swastika Girls was an homage to self-proclaimed "nonmusician" Brian Eno), conscripting musician friends— the Dead Science, Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart—to flesh out his ideas.

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, most excruciatingly so on the latter's "The Weight She Fell Under," a song about a young girl killed by a train ("Stolen in [her] awkward stage/That [she] would never escape"). While a lead singer can hardly intrude on his own songs, Pennington makes himself a particularly demanding center of attention. Each of these albums features for its cover art a drawing of Pennington as identical prepubescent 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 has 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 upkeeping some standard of 'authenticity' or whatever. But, I mean, fuck it: I do like snobby shit. 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."

Regarding singing like a lady: In his lyrics, as on those album covers, Pennington likes to inhabit differently and ambiguously gendered bodies (possibly caught in permanently arrested pubescence). The exploration of gender "started as a way of trying to undermine the traditional role of women as romantic ideal/fickle heartbreaker that populates most pop songs written by men," he says. "Safe as Houses was largely about trying to imagine womanhood in a way that was completely absent my inherently masculine romanticism. It was somehow a lot easier for me to write songs about the general grotesquery of the human condition when I allowed myself to walk the gender line."

That exploration of the grotesque, though, runs the risk of looking like a specific revulsion for female physiology—potentially just as misogynistic and objectifying as the traditional pop roles he means to topple. Pregnancy, for instance, is a "disaster" that takes "nine months to destroy my body."

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.

His critical appreciation of pop/avant tensions is most succinctly played out in a line from "A Song for Ellie Greenwich," in which Pennington imagines himself a Carpenter but can't help a little détournement: "Just like me/They long to see/You on your knees/All these hes into shes." Elsewhere, he bends to his own ends Kate Bush ("I'd sooner die than live with this kick inside"), who is like the sentry standing at the crossroads between pop and avant, and Phil Elverum ("I felt his size close to a dozen times"), regional king of the self-sensationalists. (That Pennington doesn't reach the loftiest peaks of his pop idols is no great fault—this is true of nearly all artists.) Pennington's voice, too, is at its most capable yet—his timorous quaver and cracking, and sometimes histrionic falsetto applied to his songs' great advantage (as on opener "Four Words").

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 Matthew Carlson. The band expertly expand on the orchestral ambitions hinted at on Safe as Houses, with Carlson scoring the arrangements based on Pennington's melodies and Jensen providing biologically female vocals when needed. 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 oom- pah of "Unmentionables" to the ascendant bri- dge of "The Former" ("You strive for happiness, I guess...").

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The arrangements are brought to life by an ensemble of the band's friends from both the classical and experimental music worlds, including Spectratone International's Lori Goldston, Blood Brothers/Past Lives' Morgan Henderson, and members of the Dead Science. Indeed, it can be difficult to separate Parenthetical Girls and Pennington from the Dead Science and its frontman Sam Mickens—the individuals share a certain flair for style, the Dead Science were basically Pennington's backing band for his first two records, and on each band's most recent album they make use of the very same extended coterie of classical and experimental musicians via overlapping recording sessions, though with slightly different results. If the Dead Science are an Alan Moore–era Batman comic, then Parenthetical Girls are an unusually dark Disney cartoon—say, the part where Bambi's mother gets shot.

Entanglements is a stunning, complicated album and a rewarding realization of everything Pennington has been working toward these years. One only wonders what he'll make of himself next. recommended

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