Live review: Parenthetical Girls @ Subterranean


Parenthetical Girls with Jes Kramer, Advance Base Family Band
@ Subterranean
8 June 2011

“I know it’s a scary thought to leave your house when you’re not sure if there’s going to be air conditioning or not. Takes a lot of trust.” With 100° weather lately, the Advance Base Family Band front man, Owen Ashworth from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, couldn’t have been more right. But since the AC was definitely on Hi in Subterranean, that alone should make you wish you were at the show. That, and the fact that it was all rather enjoyable.

By starting time of 8 p.m., there is no Advance Base Family Band onstage, nor are there more than 10 people here including myself, a guy browsing merch, and two couples. There’s an extra handful of people by the bar. The sound guy’s iPhone interrupts the wait music with an occasional message. It feels like it’ll be a long night.

And then suddenly between a can of PBR, a mustache, two sets of glasses, and one woman, ABFB is onstage. The folksy Chicagoans’ music is mellow in a pop sort of way and each song seems a little short. The four members sit in a straight line and Jody Weinmann (bassist/background vocalist) stands on the side. She plays through the set with a perpetually hazy smile that both puts me at ease listening to the music and makes me uncomfortable at the same time. It’s music that makes you feel like you’re going somewhere, and considering it’s the opening act, it feels quite appropriate.

From Grand Rapids, MI comes Jes Kramer. A girl with a sweet Pacific Northwestern charm (think Shelby Sifers) and total calm and ease onstage, Kramer kicks up the night a notch with “Even When It Snows.” Where was this song when we were growing up? Everything about Kramer’s set is personal, seems intimate. Maybe it’s because I’m up front. But it’s like we the audience have all been invited over to Kramer’s place for gig in her rad basement. And afterwards her mom would order pizzas and make us snacks. There’s something about the music that just invokes nostalgia in the analog sense. Especially since all of the tracking layers to each song are created in real-time before us on her Roland Juno-D keyboard, recording and looping notes and vocals.

By now I count about twenty-something people scattered about the floor of SubT, including the same ten-something people from before the show.

The new Parenthetical Girls lineup (following Rachael Jensen’s departure), of Amber W. Smith, Paul Alcott, and founding front man Zac Pennington, is joined onstage by another instrumentalist named Matt. Together, they get through some technical glitches, first taking the stage as if about to begin, then dispersing and coming back again five minutes later, this time for the real time.

Opening with “A Song for Ellie Greenwich,” I am ecstatic to see the performance (and for such an unfortunately small crowd as well). It is sublimely both humorous and alluring. Taking up every space he can squeeze his narrow self into, Pennington is more interpretative modern dancer than pop singer. Although maybe those go hand in hand (remember the video for *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”?) Pennington is ruthless though, picking up drum heads and drum sticks from backstage and throwing them down, cruising weightlessly out into the house and making use of the large emptiness that beckons him to move in it and make everyone realize just how large the emptiness in the venue stands. When he moves into the crowd, everyone is surprised it seems, silent. As much as Pennington may make anyone uncomfortable, he is still seductive to the viewer – just look up the NSFW video for the band’s newer song “The Pornographer.”

Perfectly ending the set with “Young Throats,” Pennington wastes no time to get into the crowd where oddly, awkwardly, no one sings along but only watches silently. He crawls back onstage as a furiously dapper epilepsy. End set. Shortly afterwards, the band returns for an encore of The Smiths’ “Handsome Devil” and  then Pennington says “OK great, this is our real last song” as they break into “Stolen Children.” As the slower tune plays out, Pennington makes his way up the backstage spiral staircase, singing where he can’t be seen except for his feet dangling down.

In a flash at the end of the song he is right where he said he’d be, at the merch table happily chatting up the large gathering of people waiting to talk and give him money. If he deserves anything from all you PG-virgins out there, it’s a listen to his music and then your money for it. You certainly won’t forget what you paid for.

“A Song For Ellie Greenwich”
“Four Words”
“The Pornographer”
“Evelyn McHale”
“I Was the Dancer”
“For All The Final Girls”
“The Weight She Fell Under”
“Young Throats”
“Handsome Devil (Smiths’ Cover)”
“Stolen Children”

See photos from the Parenthetical Girls set on our Flickr page.