As it becomes increasingly difficult for artists and labels to entice listeners, new releases arrive with more and more caveats about their format, recording process and various other details extraneous to the music. The Scottish Play, from Portland’s baroque-pop experimentalists Parenthetical Girls, checks a number of fashionable boxes: It’s a limited edition (500 copies), it comes in an inconvenient format (10-inch vinyl, but don’t worry: you can get it off iTunes, as well), and it has a strong conceptual background (four songs and four poems from British cult artist Ivor Cutler). But strip away all the accoutrements and The Scottish Play is still an impressive release, despite its frustratingly brief 11-minute runtime.
A faithful rendition of “Sit Down” from 1983’s Privilege LP (which provides about half the source material here) opens the record, utilizing the same sparse instrumentation as the original, emphasizing the boy/girl vocals. The droll “Whale Badge” poem is next, an absurdist take on environmental concerns. “Doughnut” is the longest track here and also the most thoughtfully composed, a relatively lush production with strong orchestral flourishes that ends with an echo-laden refrain of “I need nothing.”
A pair of typically brief and eccentric Cutler poems — “Over You Go” is a particularly strange and somewhat repulsive specimen — form a bridge to the record’s final act, which begins with “Going In A Field,” from 1967’s Ludo. Electronic flourishes and atypical sonic elements like the clinking of a metal bell complement the plaintive vocals on this disarmingly sweet paean to a day well-spent, doing nothing at all.
“The Best Thing” is one of Culter’s most darkly comic poems, a 16-second slice of witty cynicism. Album closer “Everybody Got” from 1976’s Jammy Smears (the cover of which provides the inspiration for artist David Shrigley’s album art) is a perfect match with Parenthetical Girls’ aesthetic, broadly characterized as ambitious pop with sinister overtones. The lyric of “Everybody Got” is a creepy rumination on modern sexuality, but the Girls make it sound like a flippant pop tune, obscuring the song’s meaning with snappy percussion and appealingly sweet vocals. Only after close scrutiny do you realize you’re listening to a pervert’s lament.
The Scottish Play is a willfully esoteric release from a wilfully obscure group, but this faithful tribute to an artist who staked his claim on the obscure and esoteric is a delight for anyone compelled by the darker corners of the pop songwriting universe.