Thursday, 27 November 2008

Brainlove meets Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls

Zac @ Upset The Rhythm, The Dome, London / Photo: Ama Chana

MP3: Love Connection pt. 2

Parenthetical Girls are an elusive conundrum of a band. Their 2006 breakthrough album, "Safe As Houses", is a record packed with dense, emotionally charged passages telling tales of domestic strife and familial horrors over taut, minimal compositions. Their recent long player "Entanglements" is a sharp change of direction; an ornate big-band pop record that can be at times both devastating and absurd.

Live, and at full strength, Parenthetical Girls are an incredible spectacle. Their lynchpin and frontman Zac Pennington thrives in front of a crowd, stamping his feet and smashing cymbals to the ground, or invading the audience. His angelic, elfin features, feminine gait and refined, buttoned-down dress sense make him a thoroughly engaging performer.

I caught up up Zac on the last night of Parenthetical Girls' UK tour to talk about pop stardom, childhood memory loss, Anglophilia, and the female condition.

John Brainlove: I first found Safe As Houses via the thoroughly modern method of an eMusic recommendation - "people who listened to Xiu Xiu also listened to" - way before you'd released anything over here, and described it as an "almost concept album". The themes are very strong on the record, with the songs all linking in terms of subject matter - the twins theme, the alternating male/female perspectives, childbirth, pregnancy, childhood and adolescence, and this pervasive interest in intense passages of life...

Zac Pennington: With the exception of a few songs that are more tangental, it was originally conceived as sort non-linear narrative about individual characters. Ultimately what it was that I was trying to write a record that was related to actual events in my life, and tie them to this idea of this personal, bloated, narcissistic mythology I guess. The idea being that I had no recollection of my childhood hardly at all, so that record was me trying to put the pieces together into a cohesive narrative from these snapshot memories I have. But it's also almost entirely fictionalized. But I definitely think it was interesting to me, and continues to be, the idea of writing from different perspectives and from different characters. We made the pink album and I was generally happy with it, but one thing that I needed to do was make something that seemed like it was necessary to be made, not that it was a grand and important thing, but I was tired of making something that I thought was already represented. The idea of making a record that was in part about trying to challenge the romantic notions that most male songwriters have in writing about women, with the idea that they are idolized in pop songs, or a man is, y'know, left behind... there are these formulas that reoccur in pop love songs and I wanted to do something that was completely unromanticising the female condition. Yeah, so that's kind of an overview of what I was wanting to work on. It's kind of the same way now with the new album, but trying to do things slightly differently. Not as earnestly this time around.

JB: On Safe As Houses, lots of it is written from an autobiographical perspective, but it skips around a lot between characters... but the delivery is so emotive, you wonder whether it contains any actually autobiography... or if it's all fiction.

ZP: It's hard to quantify where it begins and ends. When that album came out I was very hesitant to talk about it being autobiographical but I think that there's quite a good deal, there are touchstones of reality, but through a skewed sense of a person's own lapses in memory, and not having a full memory of things that actually happened.

JB: So, do you have no memory at all of childhood? When do your memories start?

ZP: I remember... blips... there are so many gaps...

JB: Do you think you remember unusually little?

ZP: I really don't remember anything explicit aside from little blips, before the age of 13. I dunno, that sounds like it's one of those really self aggrandizing mythological statements or whatever. I mean, there are bits that I know as reality in retrospect, but not as memory...

JB: So you've had some of your own past told to you like stories?

ZP: I guess so, yeah. But my family doesn't talk about anything, so...

JB: I'm kind of tempted to insensitively grill you on specifics at this point.

ZP: Yeah? I'm not sure if it would be worth anything.

JB: Well, if you spend a bit of time with Safe As Houses, you do get curious about where it's all come from. I guess the big question with the recurring twins motif and the male/female perspectives and the dead kids songs... did you have a twin?

ZP: No, that's fictional. Also, my mother isn't a really dreadful human being, those are things that are projected... I talked to my mother at great length before the album was released to give her the sense that I don't have any contempt for her in any way, I think in a lot of ways there are people in my life, and the characters on the album... I was trying to imagine myself in their circumstances and how I would have reacted to their lives if it was me, and I feel like they handled it a lot better than I would have, and trying to understand their circumstances...

JB: That sounds like a very writerly way to go about lyrics...

ZP: I guess so, yeah. I've never written fiction outside of pop music. I like writing in the form of pop music... I feel like I'm not good at prose.

MP3: A Song For Ellie Greenwich

JB: Are the characters we get on the album the full extent of the character? Or do you work them up outside of that?

ZP: Well, I take a really long time to write, there's definitely concept there. But it's all elementally tied to real people, and imagined realities for real people. It's not like sketching out characters, but that's why I really like writing pop music. To be effective in it you have to write very small. A friend of mine who writes screenplays was saying how they find songs to be the easiest art, because in other art forms you have to flesh out theme and character but in pop songs the main objective is to convey and emotion, and that's all you have to do to have a successful pop song. The best songs are written very small and contained, and you don't have enough room to elaborate. It's hard to do that well, and I still struggle with that. But I think it's not the easy art, it's a real challenge to say something interesting and contain emotion. A lot of people look at pop music as a trifling thing.

JB: The subjects your music touch on is really dark and intense a lot of the time, which isn't something you really find in a lot of contemporary pop. I can't imagine songs about miscarriage being sung by Britney... it seems like difficult subject matter in pop is pretty rare.

ZP: Well, more than pop music, I find pop stardom incredibly interesting. For the most part I feel like I'm drawn to weirdly dark pop music from the past. For example, I'm a huge Scott Walker fan, he's a really iconic figure for me. The idea of that music being made when it was being made incredible, it's so dark, and then he had a TV show here. In the U.S. it wasn't popular at all.

JB: Yeah, I've heard that you're a bit of an Anglophile. Is this your first trip here?

ZP: Yeah, it's my first real trip, the first proper one. It's been bittersweet because it's been fleeting. It's been a massive treat for me, especially Manchester. It was pretty huge for me. I've been wanting to do this trip for a very long time. The vast majority of my musical and cultural interests are based here. It's an easy thing to fetishize living in America I think. I hope to come back really soon.

JB: You self released your first two record on Slender Means Society, but now you're on Tomlab... how has it been letting go of the details of releasing your stuff?

ZP: Not good at all! I'm so nitpicky about all the little things and details. But it's great to be on Tomlab, the association being on the same label as Final Fantasy and people that we love.

JB: So, Entanglements. It's a real departure. You must have made the decision on how it was going to sound really early.

ZP: Before we did Safe As Houses, I had conceived of Entanglements. It was just me and I was working with The Dead Science. They were pretty busy, and Entanglements was a pretty ambitious deal. It wasn't realistic, and I wasn't confident enough to make it. Finally they gave me a tough love moment and wrote me a note saying they couldn't do any more on it, and I don't have skills to do what I needed to do to finish it by myself. So I formed a new band and it's been the same for two years now pretty much. Matt has a degree in composition and went to school for that kind of thing, so it was serendipitous to start working with him. We scrapped everything and started Safe As Houses. But now we've been a stable band for a long time, so we salvaged it and pulled together my vague concepts and phrases. I wanted it to be like a 60s pop record, like Sinatra. I'm not great at music and I rely on other people to make it a reality for me. I'm not proficient at playing anything and it's taxing for me to try. So we were a real band for the first time, and we were able to try not to rush and make this record.

JB: Yeah, it's really ambitious, so many musicians involved...

ZP: Yeah. We weren't able to pay anyone, and we recorded with everybody individually so there was no big orchestra or anything. We went to people's living rooms to record the parts. But musically, we wrote the songs, Matt did the orchestration, and Jerich from the Dead Science helped out.

JB: It's such a grand gesture of a record, to make that decision on the type of sound you wanted. And there's a real dissonance between the bright and cheery 60's pop song sound and the dark, dense subject matter.

ZP: Yeah, Scott Walker's solo albums use some of those ideas, to match those really schmaltzy sonic ideas with occasionally grotesque subject matter. It was like taking what we did with Safe As Houses to the next extreme. But ultimately it's just pop music... we had this notion of making everything bigger and bigger and bigger. And from Entanglements, we can't go bigger. I don't think we'll make a record that sounds like Entanglements ever again. It seems like it's in the same trajectory as the earlier albums.

JB: And the new songs live sound very stripped back, like alternative versions.

ZP: Yeah, it's out of necessity. But we did do one album show where we played with a full orchestra and it was the first time any of us has heard how the songs sounded really. It was really cool, but I doubt it will ever happen again. I feel like I've been surprised by people's reactions to it. People don't know how to approach it, because it's such a different thing in some ways. We're very aware that our albums function as albums, and that playing them out, the songs, while we like them, don't translate as well as the albums. We make albums, and it's a funny time to be doing that.

JB: I guess so with the format as an entity being questioned... are you bringing albums back?

ZP: Ha, I don't want to be charged with that, but I guess so.

Entanglements is out now on Tomlab.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Songs In The Key Of Brainlove #1


Hello and welcome, dear readers, to the first in a new series of columns I'm gonna be writing for Drowned In Sound, on the most weird and wonderful sounds that come into my ears. I got more columns than the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was alleged to have. Believe!

So, there's a certain strand of mathy, crowded, syncopated, hi-speed avalanche-of-notes cross-genre stuff going around at the moment. This frenetic strand of music tickles the brain in mysterious ways, with the listener running to keep up behind coiling, looping polyrhythms, instinctively understanding the melodies before critical faculty can even get into gear, and generally being absorbed, surprised and outfoxed in an enjoyably adrenalizing way. Like the hyper-hyper breaks mashup of Glasgow's prodigious Germlin (example: his seminal collaboration with fellow Adaadat artist DJ Scotch Egg here), and the apoplectic, hysterical electronica of Kevin Blechdom, this accelerated ADHD-core functions as both a too-loud-too-fast aural overload and the most excitingly transgressive variant of melodic pop music you've ever heard.

Germlin has long rated Max Tundra (a.k.a. Ben Jacobs) as a powerful influence, and he's name checked the aforementioned Kevy B by track 2, so it's with Tundra's new record 'Parallax Error Beheads You' that we'll begin. Vacillating between Jackson 5-esque soulful pop music, bizarro Megadrive chiptunes, chopped-up vocoder glitchcore and countless other new sub-sub-sub-subgenres, Parallax Error is teeming with creativity. Setting out 6 years ago to make "the most original record ever", Jacobs has created a mind-bending synthesis of his madcap vision. This is truly next-level stuff, and not just in the shoot-'em'-up soundtrack sense.

Max Tundra - Will Get Fooled Again

The third Simon Bookish album 'Everything/Everything' sounds positively sedate after the brain chaos of Parallax Error, but offers it's own unique brand of mind-boggling sonic pointillism. You may have noticed it not exactly breaking down the door of the mainstream media, but for the keen-eyed music geeks among us, the steadily mounting critical applause has come from all the right places. In fact, Pitchfork are offering a free track here. Everything/Everything is a loosely woven concept album based around the themes of knowledge, science, media saturation, taxonomy, experience... and, by extension, all the stuff of modern life itself. Intelligent arrangements, whimsical humour, arch delivery, shards of autobiography and vivid poetry combine into a stunningly ambitious construction. One of the essential records of 2008.
MP3: Dumb Terminal

Simon Bookish photo by Lucy Jay for The Quietus

Marnie Stern manages to turn that most ubiquitous and often bluntest of all instruments, The Electric Guitar, into some kind of holy transmitter of all things ace. Following on where noteable but flawed bands like Deerhoof and Melt Banana tail off, her intimidatingly titled second album 'This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That' is a visceral and impassioned hi-NRG mathpop record. 'Prime' is a shrill battering ram of a song, tumbling into the almost classical shredding of 'Transformer' (video below). 'Ruler' is one of the most exciting and catchy songs of the year. I can't wait to see this shit live. All I can say is - <3.

Marnie Stern - Transformer

So-hot-right-now major label fledgling popstar FrankMusik might not be a natural fit next to these right-on pillars of the leftfield, being of an oddly schizophrenic musical disposition. You can hear A-ha's euphoric 80's teen heartache anthems stitched alongside bits of dancefloor-friendly 90's boyband schtick and Fischerspooner synth octaves. Right now, it's unclear whether FrankMusik wants to be Robbie Williams or Max Tundra - but with songs as creepily, efficiently catchy as 'Thee Little Words', who cares?

FrankMusik - Three Little Words

Thanks for listening.

Thursday, 6 November 2008


VOTE HERE for Fuck Buttons to win The Guardian's best debut album award!

Album review for The Line Of Best Fit in January '08

It’s dark tonight. Above my head in the clear sky, there are a million stars dusted across the inky blackness. Down here on the ground, blank rolls of mud-brown hills stretch out in front of me. Somewhere close by there is water, a huge amount of it, a crushing weight of water being pulled back and forth by the gravity of the moon. I can hear the crashing sound as it flagellates the shoreline. Somewhere far below my feet, I’ve been told there is a hot, molten core of fire in the heart of this planet, but up here above the earth’s mantle a cold breeze breathes onto my face, past me, through me. My attention moves to my own breathing, the air being consumed by my ravenous lungs, and I listen to my heart as it beats the blood around my body. My eyes stare outwards, and somewhere in the space behind, my consciousness realises itself once again.

Dark skies, inky blackness, soft mud, roaring oceans, fire, nature, blood, and selfhood in the face of an unknowably vast universe - quite a palette of evoked imagery and invoked subject matter. But entry into this grand exploration is just one of the things offered up by Fuck Buttons’ astonishing debut album, Street Horrrsing.

‘Sweet Love For Planet Earth’ begins with a tinkling electronic windchime that gradually gives way to a tidal flow of distorted keyboard, layered up into a gentle repetition, buffeted by waves of semi-comprehensible screamed vocals, and lifted further by crashing aural fronts and eddies. It summons up a sense of celestial wonder and draws out the spirit like a full moon. It’s an adrenalising experience, and it flows straight into the tribal percussion of ‘Ribs Out’, with preternatural vocals cawing and hooting and coming off like an alien bird of paradise. ‘OK, Let’s Talk About Magic’ introduces a rasping mechanical beat and pulsing synth; ‘Bright Tomorrow’ is the most anthemic track here, light-hearted and giddily emotional, and a fitting melodic counterpoint to some of the denser slabs of distortion. The album unfolds through different combinations, structures and sequences drawn from this sound palette, intelligently exploring and mapping out the transcendental possibilities contained therein.

Possibly the most notable aspect of Street Horrrsing is the breadth of subject matter it manages to evoke. For a largely instrumental album with an absolute minimum of coherent lyrics, it’s teeming with content. Whether or not the specific subjects are something that come from within the listener, or something presented as an intrinsic element of the music is a question from philosophers not humble music journalists, so I won’t go into specifics - but I found my mind wandering far and wide under it’s influence.

Fuck Buttons’ music explodes what is expected of it to fire the imagination, and the resultant album is the most fully realised debut of recent years. Their imminent success (including a sprawling tour of the US with Caribou) will hopefully bring them some richly deserved wider recognition.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

ATP: RELEASE THE BATS, Kentish Town Forum, 30/11/08

For Subba Cultcha

And so, friends, we go bravely into the breach once more. The booze 'n' blood splattered noise party that is All Tomorrows Parties' annual Release The Bats is upon us again like a still-warm technicolor zombie drug bastard lurching from a pukey Shoreditch doorway. The promise of a free ATP chalet for the best outfit is enough temptation for a good proportion of the assembled hipsters to make the effort, and the bands don't let the side down either. First stop on the highway to hell: NYC's Lightning Bolt.

Lightning Bolt: "Do You Don't Me Want Me To Love You?"

A masked man pummels the drums like they're trying to take his life. Another masked man wrestles his guitar, flipping out tangled distorto-riffs and chunky chords. Both are positioned on the venue floor, surrounded by the zombified audience. From the balcony, we're afforded a decent viewpoint of the action; the slightly polite moshing from the assembled noisenik sausagefest; the regularity with which the guitar's headstock nearly gives someone a facial gash they won't be able to peel off; the entertaining panic of the security guards as they realise the band have no protection from an increasingly active crowd. Every song sounds like a speeded-up, beaten-down, messy version of the Beatles' Helter Skelter. Good shit.

Pissed Jeans: "Do You Love Me?"

Pissed Jeans win the wooden spoon for fancy dress, but are saved by a frontman who's all twitching, seething awkward angles, knees and elbows and hips and shoulders. He's clearly graduated the Nick Cave school of showmanship with honours, and his band from The Birthday Party school of nasty old bastard fuzzrock. Heavy, sludgy riffs ripple outwards while he rants and wails and paces the stage. This is nasty, violent music: more good shit.

Wooden Shjips: "Dangerous Magical Noise"

Slowing things down a bit, Wooden Shjips run riot with a choice selection of bass-led grooves and hazy psychedelia, coming on like Spaceman 3 playing the blues. I can't remember if they dressed up, but there was at least one awesome beard on the stage, so they're let off the meathook on that front. I'm not massively into their set, but am very aware that they're occupying the "Deerhunter slot"... said band played here last year and quickly went from zero to hero when I heard their recordings, so Wooden Shjips are a band I plan to check out again soon.

Les Savy Fav

Les Savy Fav: "It's good to be alive, but it's better to have died.."

The rock 'n' roll spectacle of the night comes from Les Savy Fav, who proceed to tear it the fuck up with more gusto than anyone could reasonably expect from an aging, bearded, pot-bellied frontman. Within the first song he's in the crowd, then he's simula-boning a decorative zombie mannequin, then pogoing in his pants... song two and he's off around the vast Forum balcony, the mic lead taut above the rictus grinning heads of the audience. Before the gig is out, the air is full of flying toilet rolls, and he's doing a coordinated dance with a fan dressed in a paper mache Les Savy Fav head. I can't really remember what it sounded like, but this was fucking rad.


Shellac: "BITE!"

Steve Albini's Shellac win the costume prize, easily. Their drummer is a hissing dracula who stalks the stage between apoplectic explosions of rhythm; the bass player chugs along dressed as a green, bolt-necked Frankenstein, and method acts through the show, emitting no words except for a deadpan "RAAARRRRGGGHH". Albini is a lurching mummy, bandaged from head to toe, with his glasses operched on the end of his bandaged nose. The music spits and snarls despite the comedic get-up, misanthropic and endlessly, powerfully negative. The lyrics cancel themselves out regularly: "this song is for our sponsor / we don't have a sponsor / this song is for a special girl / there's no such thing as a special girl". Shellac is relentlessly, refreshing nasty, from the counter-intuitive rhythm changes to the scowling, menacing guitar lines. This music bites and leaves a mark.

Om close the night, but the room is emptying faster than a mass grave on Halloween, so we decide to catch them another time go pouring out into the night alight with excitement at the spectacle we've just seen. Roll on ATP, and roll on Halloween 09.

Top two photos courtesy of Nick Helderman.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Lambchop @ Union Chapel 04/011/08

For Music OMH

The Union Chapel is one of London's most beautiful venues. The flickering candles, wooden pews, glowing stained glass windows and arched vaulting combine to provide a venue as thick with expectant atmosphere as it is with dreamy natural reverb. It's a great setting for the borderline narcoleptic mellowness of Lambchop.

Lambchop (tonight a seven-piece on guitars, percussions, piano, bass and keyboards) play their new record, "Oh (Ohio)" in full, clearly relishing the chance to give the new material a spin. The new record is typical fare from a prolific band who never really change that much; and while this might sound like damning with faint praise, in this case the continuity is becoming. Lambchop don't make bad albums, and their ever-attentive fans continue to lap up their output.

Tonight, Kurt Wagner's paper-dry voice is softened by the sound of the room, to the point at which the echoing lyrics are hard to decipher. His voice is reduced to another instrument, a comforting drawl of echo that sits in the foreground of the sound. It's a slight shame - Lambchop's lyrics are great - but easily forgivable in the context of the evening. The still, echoey, pink-lit space of the Union Chapel provides a dreamy backdrop to Lambchop's subtle, domestic style.

Wagner is ever the charismatic performer, rocking in his seat with his knees clenched together, arching his back and running his fingers over the strings with a flourish. For the rousing finale of the "Oh (Ohio)" set, he ditches the guitar, pulling himself up with the mic stand and jabbing his finger towards the crowd, his deep, croaking old voice rising up to the back of the balcony. These few moments of movement are accentuated by the stillness of the performance; Lambchop can lift the roof off of any venue when they get into full swing.

They finish with a few fairly obscure older numbers - even though I own five albums I'm nowhere near familiar with everything they've done - and a rousing version of their signature song 'Up With People'. Lambchop are as assured, consistent and accomplished as ever, and with performances like this coming as naturally as breathing, they ain't going anywhere fast.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Brainlove Podcast / Iceland Mix

MP3: Hosted courtesy of The Line Of Best Fit

Download this mix of shimmering drone, ephemeral pop, Iceland field recordings and weirdo-disko by clicking below. Second podcast, a best-of-08 mix, will go live in December.