Thursday, September 18, 2008

Parenthetical Girls - Entanglement (Tomlab 2008)

Tomlab 2008

Listen: The Former

On Entanglements, The Parenthetical Girls continue with the same warped, experimental, cabaret-esque pop they've developed over the past few years on their two previous studio albums. There's a definite hint of progression - Entanglements is a far more polished affair than 2004's (((GIRLS))), but at times, there's an almost desperate need to be as manic as possible. On 'Song for Ellie Green', a tribute to the 60s folk rock singer, that chaos is in full swing as Zak Pennington with his offbeat, drawling vocals sings 'Pressed unto us flesh still sickly sweet / With scents of love / But lost of this lust / Exactly what becomes of us?' The album is still undeniably catchy, sure, but the production has been toned down this time round, so while it's chaotic in places, it's also slightly smoother in others and every now and then drifts into clichéd flatness. The whole thing comes across as a sort of happy, more twee version of Xiu Xiu in all its camp strangeness.

'Song for Ellie Green' highlights The Parenthetical Girls' obsession with the perverse and stranger side of human relationships and the whole album is essentially a collection of bizarre tales of love. Lyrics play such an important part on any Parenthetical Girls records, from the rather silly, Vaudevillian charm of 'And what such fates we to betray / As your legs gave way' on 'Young Eucharist' to the even more absurd, over-the-top theatricality of 'His legs gave way like pages from a pop-up book' on 'Unmentionables' to the oddly beautiful, but very twisted 'Avenue of Trees', which tells the story of one man's love for a younger girl. It has the same silliness as The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, but on close listen, Pennington wants his songs to shock and while The Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt singing about obsessive love gets about as weird as pretending someone is Jesus, Pennington pushes that obsession further into highly sexual metaphors such as a love which continues from beyond the grave as on 'Four Songs.'

Listening to parts of this album, is a bit like being at some kind of Terry Gilliam curated circus with a very distinct, rather kitsch strangeness ('Four Words') and at others its like being the last person left at a crazy party hosted by someone like Dalí as the band continue to play, but have lost all touch with reality ('Abandoning'). Good or bad? It's actually quite hard to say. The band are strongest when they manage to combine all of these elements, and they really get it right with 'The Former', which takes all of that madness and manages to sew the various elements, the strings, the piano, the horns and the synths into a far more coherent, tuneful song.

The Parenthetical Girls are certainly inventive, (sometimes deliberately trying a little too hard to be unique), but it doesn't look like they're going to be running out of ideas any time soon. The cover of 'Windmills of Your Mind' is worth mentioning as it demonstrates their ability to turn the disjointed melodies of the original into something refreshingly different, considering it's such an overused song. As the droney, whiney strings suddenly break into the kind of cabaret you find on an Emir Kursturica film, they actually manage to sound something like a spinning wheel. But recreating those kinds of sensations doesn't necessarily mean there's much beyond that.

The main problem I have with this album is the irresolvable tension between the record's silliness and it's ironic, tongue-in-cheek approach, which often comes across as a little too serious. The reason 69 Love Songs is such a great album is because it's not trying to be something it's not. Simple, catchy, silly songs about love is one thing, twisted, sardonic, perverse songs is another. Fortunately, the album's shortness is a blessing. There is a limit to the amount of fractured pop you can take, and while there are some very excellent parts, there are just as many irritating ones too.


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