Live Review: Parenthetical Girls @ TBA:12

This was a pleasant surprise. One of my favorite local experimentalists, Daniel Schultz (he records and performs as Troubled by Insects), offered up a review he put together of the recent TBA:12 performance/night put together by Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls. And as you’ll read, it’s a warm and astute look at what sounds like an amazing evening of performance art and music. Thanks again, Daniel. 

“If you want it.”

I imagined the phrase, small and parenthetical, under the title of the program I was holding. It read, in bold black type: PRIVILEGE IS OVER.

I was handed the program an hour and a half before midnight, and I’m sure any nightmare I had in my adolescence could not have equipped me properly to be standing in line to enter a high school auditorium at such a time a decade into the future. Yet at Washington High School in southeast Portland I stood in queue, waiting for admission to Parenthetical Girls, et al. This one-time performance of the wonderfully jubilant pop wunderkinds occurred in conjunction with the Time Based Arts Festival, at the defunct high school hiply retitled “The Works,” something of an axis from which all TBA events spin out to envelop the city.

PRIVILEGE IS OVER declared the program, and simultaneously, for Parenthetical Girls, Privilege (the album) is finally seeing itself fully realized, an ambitious five-EP set that has recently seen the release of its concluding chapter. Inasmuch, Parenthetical Girls, et al. was an opportunity for the group to peel back the layers of their work, to play out on stage all permutations of their overwhelming craftmanship.

The evening found itself split into four parts, leading off with orchestral arrangements by Seattle-based Jherek Bischoff. The small ensemble comprised primarily of strings and brass was accompanied at first by lead ((GRRRL)) Zac Pennington, described in the program as Parenthetical Girls’ “founder, creative director, […and] sole constant.” Pennington’s introduction addressed both the ambitious display the evening was about to offer, and his always candid relationship with his audiences: “This is gonna be really fun,” exhaling thru pursed lips, his head dropped back towards the ceiling.

The ensemble continued unaccompanied through a few more of Bischoff’s works, from jagged and full of tension, to subtle and subdued with even more tension. Classical Revolution PDX worked through the scores beautifully, setting the tone of the evening. This is the realm in which Parenthetical Girls exists, shrugging off all pre-disposed constructs of “pop music” and any low-art denotations therein.

The second segment featured dance performed and choreographed by Allie Hankins, who revealed herself onstage in a manner suggesting the artwork of Safe as Houses come to life, eschewed and made flesh: administering gold glitter to her bare chest, neck, and forearms, the motions of her work as her dance continued sent plumes of gold to hover about her frame. Hankins is one whose tool (her body) reveals the fruits of intense effort put forth by those who spend years honing their chosen instrument through practice and discipline. Her motions were staccato and urgent, yet fluid and feminine. The concluding elements of her performance suggested repetition and evolution, as Hankins would find herself returning to a specific point on stage, editing and adding steps and flourishes, revisioning and reassessing her goal. As she spent the last minute of her performance jumping in place, arms pinwheeling in golden spirals, she appeared to take flight, as though the entirety of the stage left not enough room for her body to give meaning to sound.

Portland experimental darlings Golden Retriever were joined by members of Classical Revolution PDX for the third act of the evening. Matt Carlson’s synthesized sweeps and stabs at once seemed to accompany and direct the ensemble as they forayed into more avant garde territory, as Jonathan Sielaff’s bass clarinet matched and enhanced the ebb and flow of the group.

The final act was to be, wholly, Parenthetical Girls, et al. With all parties on stage suddenly the immensity of the world Pennington has created seemed overwhelming and vast, and perhaps it was the late hour, but the audience appeared unfortunately thin in advance of the grand finale. I had the pleasure of seeing Parenthetical Girls (the more typical four-piece permutation) perform several months back at Mississippi Studios, but here, among the strings and synths, dancers and projections, Zac’s collaborative masterpiece was fully alive. Arriving on stage harnessed to two huge black balloons, Pennington seemed poised to take flight himself; unlike Hankins, however, his ascent would be a gentle floating upwards.

All this would have been deserved; alas, not all was to transpire. Blame, in these situations, is a tricky thing. The beauty of the four-piece pop group is that problems can be easily identified, sorted, rooted out. At The Works, the stage was a tangle of bodies, wires, cables, chairs, stands, instruments, glitter. Perhaps the condemned auditorium was not quite up to the task, but as Carlson’s synth went silent and volume to microphones was lost, the moments of unintentional silence began to overwhelm.

Zac Pennington is, without a doubt, a patient and intelligent songwriter, and as Parenthetical Girls, et al. proved, a thoughtful and adept collaborator. In contrast (or perhaps in association), by nature or by act, Pennington is a quickly bored vocalist. He wanders, wiggles, sashays through crowds and aisles, commands risers and grand pianos, scales amplifiers and scaffolds, singing all the while, never dropping a note or phrase, engaging and enrapturing in full. So Zac never needed the balloons to transport him from the stage he curated through eight years of toil and craft. His escape required only a wireless microphone. As the band played through their final track, a camera followed Pennington through the hallways of The Works, projecting his journey onstage to an audience in ancient stadium seats: through the unisex bathroom, up and down staircases, back to the main hall, still singing in time even as his mic was traveling dangerously out of range, outside, through the beer garden, amongst benches and tables, through a fence, the camera’s final shot held on a giant wall of light spelling out TBA, into the streets, Zac, escaping into the Portland night, constrained by no convention or concept or decrepit high school auditorium or sound issue or anything, really, if he wants it.

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