Entanglements is the album that Zac Pennington has been wanting to make for upward of three years. Originally conceived as the follow-up to his 2004 debut, a collaboration with the Dead Science’s Jherek Bischoff and Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart called (((GRRRLS))) — the songs written for this album had to be set aside because they were simply too ambitious at the time. Instead, he recorded the much simpler (but still stunning) Safe as Houses, which featured Bischoff and his bandmate Sam Mickens. After Houses received much critical praise, Pennington set about recruiting musicians to realize his original vision. The line-up he ultimately chose consists of Matt Carlson, Rachael Jensen and Eddy Crichton as the core of the band, with Bischoff still handling production duties, and a cast of over fifteen classically trained studio musicians.
It’s clear why Pennington needed such an extensive cast. This isn’t so much a rock album as an orchestral pop song cycle, bringing to mind composers like Van Dyke Parks more often than contemporary indie rock. There are none of the traditional “rock band” trappings to be found here, which is a refreshing change of pace given the current musical atmosphere. Each song is carefully composed, primarily dependent on strings, with just the right measure of supporting piano, horns and glockenspiel. All held together, of course, by Pennington’s falsetto croon.
Lead-off single “A Song for Ellie Greenwich” is typical of the sound of Entanglements. A small horn section provides a quick paced but melancholy backdrop to lyrics of adolescent sexual confusion: “Pressed unto us flesh still sickly sweet/ With scents of love but lost of this lust.” The whimsical oomp-ah of the horns in “Unmentionables” is turned ironic when placed against words that sound as if they were ripped from a Xiu Xiu lyric booklet. The staccato violins that make up the intro of “Gut Symmetries” sound like Final Fantasy or Andrew Bird, but they soon give way to a nightmarish descending piano line and a cacophony of strings.
The band says the recording required individual tracking of hundreds of instruments, and this is less a boast of its complexity than a testament to its ambition. For all intents and purposes, Parenthetical Girls consists primarily of Zac Pennington’s unmistakable vocals, and they are given a musical context that emphasizes their stark beauty on this album. It was well worth the three years of effort on his part.