Parenthetical Girls are out in indie pop’s darkest corner. You could liberally throw the word twee on them for size, but they share as much with Xiu Xiu as they do with Los Campesinos!; they can write a song like “Be Careful Who You Dance With” — one that sparkles and echoes around the hall — but acts more as a trigger warning and a story about bust-up heads. On the Privilege EPs, Zac Pennington’s songwriting pushed harder and harder towards the hubris behind a sweet little song, and (Abridged) collects the dichotomy like a decorated best-of. This isn’t a genre record, and so saying this is one of the better indie albums of the year becomes a quandary rather than a statement. When it comes to bottling a style of music, or laying out a set of rules for how a song gets written, Privilege (Abridged) just messes with us.
The Girls have always been interested in distorting what designs we have on the “album”, be it in terms of a conforming musicality or the system in which the music is presented. (((GRRRLLS)))) came as a doubly-produced record, one that the band essentially retried to see which side was more essential. Similarly, it’s hard to know how Privilege (Abridged), which collects five connected EPs, is corresponding with its source material; it’s an album in which the Girls are compiling: collecting styles in order to tarnish the idea of a linear album, like tearing down a bill of rights. The songs on this record aren’t perfect fits; “The Pornographer” exists on its own time, a repetitive, stoned-out guitar song that sounds equal to nothing on the album. Its heaviness is out of step, its sluggishness an infuriating trade-off, and yet what it shares with Privilege (Abridged) is much deeper. It shares the DNA of Pennington’s repeating, bottomless songs, each played with the same consistent frequency, as if letting up on a song would be admitting defeat. “The Pornographer” circulates its elongated riffs in the same way “Young Throats” can’t stop once it’s begun.
And even if they can’t decide in what way a pop song gets made, Privilege (Abridged) presents the Girls declaring what their own idea of one might be. They ominously blast Tears for Fears-styled synth on “Young Throats” and come in screeching over ukulele on “A Note to Self”, as much interested in a deconstruction of the form as a celebration of it. This feels, more than ever, like a mission statement for the band, looking at fragilities that most would fall shy of, but Privilege (Abridged) works best as it honors the laterally warped vision the band has when they don’t have a care for what this cruel world thinks. “Sympathy for Spastics” is a highly unsettling piece of art, a sparse piano song letting the blood run through it slow. For all its lightness, it sounds more infected than anything else on the album, given to real wounds because it shows its work. The Girls speak of permeation and sympathy, letting one run into the other like they’ve worked through to a disturbing, logical conclusion. While other songs on the Privilege EPs — like these electro-pop obsessed songs–seem to flow eternally to their end, it’s the quiet moments where the blood-letting happens. The Girls are best when circling the drain; “Sympathy for Spastics” is the best song of the collected Privilege as a result.
In a preview of the album, MTV Hive compared Pennington’s lyrics to a wise-cracking Stuart Murdoch;at a base level, it’s an appealing idea. Pennington lets words like “proletarian” slither through sections of his songs unbeknownst to us, like a young Murdoch might if he were seeking an uncertain laugh. But Murdoch isn’t looking for the laugh that curls into a stern frown like Pennington is. As a collection, it’s hard to take in Privilege (Abridged) as the best of a larger collection; it’s like listening to an off-kilter best-of record with a theme masked and bound to it. It’s hard to connect the synth party fake-outs the Girls bookend the record with, hard to see them alongside “The Pornographer” or the stunning “Sympathy for Spastics”. But it’s the songwriting these songs highlight. The styles might be a headache, but the sickness Pennington details is worth the pain.