There’s something fantastically empowering about assuming alternate identities—all the “should I should I should I’s” slough away and unseal a second skin wherein mimicry can become proficiency can become its own gloriously winged being. Case in point, Zac Pennington. Leading art-pop/pop-art provocateurs Parenthetical Girls, Pennington contains multitudes—or masquerades as multitudes—the distinction is immaterial as the frontman louches through the wardrobe racks and bulbed mirrors of his own Annie Leibovitz shoot, seamlessly transforming from cardiganed K-Popper to Jude Law dandy, brooding through one setup in sepulchral Goth and vamping the next in lipstick and tussle.
In order to elevate the identity-play of Privilege (Abridged) above two-dimensional dress-up, Pennington flaunts a virtuosic grasp of spatial relationships; casting himself as a costume-swapping, ambiguously diegetic master of ceremonies, the singer commands a space both above and within the world of each song, the acutely rendered dramas of sexual revenge, indiscretion and suicide unfolding at stage left as Pennington sashays through the pain and shame of the ensnared players with an ambivalence that borders on sinister. It’s a serious fucking star turn, and all the more remarkable in light of how far Pennington’s come as a vocalist. 2004’s (((GRRRLS))) captured the singer still replicating rather than inhabiting, his fragile voice fluttering over nascent glockenspiel and rutted in the “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” stylings of co-producer/Xiu Xiu mastermind Jamie Stewart. On follow-up Safe As Houses, Pennington increasingly tested the cardinal points of his vibrato, wavering between 4 Non Blondes bleat and Vanderslice wobble, scaling Yorke-ean falsettos and splintering in Mangum breaks. The band’s most recent album, the richly orchestrated song cycle Entanglements, played to the collective’s most charming anachronisms—with Pennington doffing derby and umbrella to swing from lamppost to lamppost—but while showcasing a more refined vocal approach, the multi-tracked chamber-pop was even more of a testament to the parallel artistic growth of Pennington’s longtime collaborative foil, composer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Jherek Bischoff.
Right—we’re not gabbing on about some glorified solo project here. And can we all agree that Jherek Bischoff is about as insanely talented as any musician working in indie rock today? Can we go ahead and agree on that? Tell you what, if you want to know everything you need to know about Jherek Bischoff, skip all that Amanda Palmer/Grand Theft Orchestra mess and Google up the Lincoln Center performance of his DIY symphony suite, Composed. Number after number, these full-on showboats take turns chewing the scenery—David Byrne, Zac Pennington, and a phenomenally groovy conductor (whose maroon tailcoat is, in a word, fly)—and then there’s Jherek Bischoff, blending in with the musicians in the back row, plucking away on a ukulele of all things. If you didn’t know the guy wrote the entire thing, seriously, you’d never know the guy wrote the entire thing: he just smiles and plucks and light ups while his compositions are brought to life. Sheesh. Lovely.
In case you’re wondering where Pennington/Bischoff might situate their combined songwriting aesthetic, surely there’s no better starting point than Entanglements’ super-great “A Song For Ellie Greenwich”: atop cabrioles of trumpet and violin, the lyrics tip their hat to “(They Long To Be) Close To You” and “Hand In Glove,” and the better part of Privilege (Abridged) embellishes that sweet spot between Bacharach/David and Morrissey/Marr. “Evelyn McHale” leads the album with a timeless, Ronettes backbeat and another nod to The Smiths as Pennington serenades the bride-to-be whose iconic photo was splashed across Life magazine after she leapt from the Empire State Building and landed in languorous repose atop a Cadillac Limo: “Hateful and hollow, smug and smart/Well don’t we look the part?/Sweetheart, remembered for your art/Train those charms toward the charts and we’ll be stars just the way that we are.” I know what you’re thinking: must we drop everything and focus on that little bit of lyric? Yes, we must. Allusion, alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme: purely at the line-level there’s craft enough to reward repeat listens, but complementing that deft writing, Pennington has mastered the most captivating qualities of his voice, luxuriating in all those assonant vowel sounds, teasing with sibilance and projecting to the balcony at will.
Supposedly—supposedly—Privilege (Abridged) coheres around or sheds the white-hot light of inquiry upon its titular concept, but please, who are we kidding, these belles-lettres are less a vehicle for contemporary social commentary and more a pretext for Pennington to swagger as if he’d stepped straight from an Evelyn Waugh novel. Not that I’m pitching a fuss, mind you—“privilege” has become the most tedious polemic trump card this side of “slippery slope,” and Pennington’s positively ravishing in Brideshead. And what, asketh thou, has been “Abridged” from Privilege? Wouldn’t we all like to know. The original, limited-edition objet accommodated 21 songs across five 12” EPs and brandished an asking price somewhere in the neighborhood of Perrier-Jouët’s Belle Époque. The Vintage Rosé, thank you very much. Whatever superfluity has been excised, the 12 remaining tracks crest high upon high like a collection of singles, or a playlist of M83 after you’ve done away with all the empty calories and filler. Speaking of whom, “Young Throats” discharges a barrage of those besotted, Molly Ringwald synths for a Saturdays=Youth-type anthem that will almost certainly inspire comely strangers to clasp hands and race barefoot through the dunes. In “Careful Who You Dance With” Pennington goes wilding with the boys—and oh these boys know wilding—“reckless romantics” and “cheap meat” careening toward an ineluctable collision of forced fellatio and viscid rage, the spare Casio beat deviating into Dead Or Alive magnificence as “somebody’s bound to get his head kicked in.”
None of which, however, ought suggest Privilege (Abridged) trims itself from top to tail in ‘80s accoutrements: “The Pornographer” leers to a glam Bolan stomp while “The Common Touch” reels amid the precipitous piano and slashing cello of Cursive at their most baroque. For pure kicks, the trashy hook of “A Note To Self” rips off The Strokes ripping off Tom Petty ripping off that mythical contraption misty-eyed old duffers refer to as “AM radio.” Gender-bending voice and piano number “Sympathy For Spastics” is le plus: less precious than Owen Pallett, more tawdry than Patrick Wolf, Pennington revives the epic tradition of New Wave balladry spawned by “The Power of Love,” where Frankie Goes To Hollywood either invented the genre or simply obliterated every prior iteration in a blast wave of sheer fabulousness.
So, you know, that’s it. No doubt there are bound to be those who complain of how Parenthetical Girls wear their influences on their sleeves. Yeah—that’s the point. By now, there’s no form of influence more small-minded and domineering than the schooled belief that creativity should “appear” free of influence. Regardless of medium, that line of inquiry inevitably runs aground at the same nether end: the toilet becomes the art instillation and the only innovative ingredients left to cook are cuts from the intestinal tract. Great. Go put your pisser on a pedestal. Go nibble your crispy colon confit. Privilege (Abridged) takes on immediately recognizable appearances, but Pennington doesn’t just walk through each number; he partners with them, parading the words and music in and out of dynamic perspective. It’s a song and dance that’s just my style.