Parenthetical Girls released the first of their five-part Privilege EP series in 2010. The Portland, OR, band only made 500 physical copies of each disc, and all were hand-numbered in the blood of one of the Girls—Zac Pennington, Racheal Jensen, Jherek Bischoff, Amber Smith or Paul Alcott. It was a melodramatic touch that fit with Pennington’s vision from the group’s inception: The founder has gravitated toward the theatrical and morose ever since Parenthetical Girls’ 2004 debut, the vinyl-only (((GRRRLS))). That LP was reissued as a CD in 2006, the same year that the band released Safe As Houses, an album that paired lyrics on periods and pregnancy pains with warped 1950s and ’60s pop balladry. The group ventured into orchestral music on 2008’s Entanglements, and with the Privilege EPs, Parenthetical Girls tried a little bit of everything: dance-floor-ready synth songs, symphonic experiments, melodic pop. And now the band has selected 12 of the 21 EP songs for the full Privilege LP.
All of the EPs hung together because of the shared themes—death, birth, love—and because each was led by Pennington’s panicked falsetto. His voice has a fluttering, nervous quality that gives every song the feeling that the end is nigh. It’s tempting to try to shove each EP into a sound category, but if you try to label Pt. 2 “the classical one” for using more strings and piano, you’d have to ignore the blasting synthesizers on that EP’s other tracks. And you could call Pt. 3 “the dark one” only if you’d forgotten that the first song on Pt. 1, “Evelyn McHale,” is about a 23-year-old woman who jumped to her death from the Empire State Building in 1947 and was captured in a photograph, dubbed “The Most Beautiful Suicide.” That song opens the LP with a jolly acoustic guitar that leads into the line, “When you got crippled by that car.” Strings slide back and forth in the background, like leaves—or a body—falling in slow motion, the first sign that the orchestral bits of Entanglements have married into the band’s experimental pop family.
The song is a cozy opening that does little to prepare you for the sparser piano and string arrangement of “The Common Touch.” Pennington’s voice moves at an angle to the instruments’ melodies, and the crash landing of an electric guitar shoves the song further off kilter. “Careful Who You Dance With” follows, a dark, New Order-y electro-pop song whose chorus of “Be careful who you dance with/Somebody’s bound to get his head kicked in” signals that there may be love in this club, but there’s also danger. “Young Throats” keeps to the menacing synthesizers, and “The Pornographer” too leans threatening with a leering guitar riff and a beat that sounds like the trudging of a chain gang. These three songs are some of the best on Privilege, evidence that while Pennington is fine when he steps into the light, he’s more fun in the dark.
Past releases from Parenthetical Girls have felt like one big experimental wave, weird and unsettling but cohesive. Privilege jerks you around more with abrupt changes in style from song to song, likely the result of the album being assembled from reshuffled EP tracks released over two years. But there are more standalone tracks here, ones with memorable melodies and sing-along choruses coexisting with the band’s fatalistic lyrics and jarring instrumental twists. It’s the most traditional Parenthetical Girls could ever be without losing their desolate and theatrical side, which they retain on this album, with or without the blood.