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Popular Music
Minor Works Zara Hedderman , October 19th, 2023 09:22

New band from ex-Parenthetical Girls frontman build worlds in a wonderfully detailed collection of songs, finds Zara Hedderman

“I wrote the songs that made the young girls cry / I wrote the songs that made them want to die / By any metric you might measure with / I made the songs / They made no difference,” Zac Pennington wryly intones to a ceremonious marching beat and a menacing combination of snarling guitar and haunting synths on ‘Sad Songs’. Maudlin in nature, the song takes an unexpected turn in its final moments as the former Parenthetical Girls frontman delivers a muted rendition of Haddaway’s ‘What Is Love’s’ infectious refrain. This is just one of many magnificently detailed compositions from the excellent second record from Pennington and his Popular Music collaborator, composer Prudence Rees-Lee.

Minor Works, the duo’s first outing of original material, is a fascinating tragic-comedy of sorts. Here, we encounter a world in ruin on the alluring ‘Revelations’, unshakable personal dread heightened by waking-up on bathroom floors and tongue-in-cheek vignettes from the arts world. Sonically, it exists in a realm inhabited by Sparks (Pennington’s cadence is regularly reminiscent of Russel Mael’s emotive vibrato, the pop-inflected production also nods in their direction) and Destroyer’s storied and theatrically minded lyricism with hints of Scott Walker and Gary Numan, too. Many of the songs span further than the five-minute mark, each embellishment and unhurried arrangement is well-earned and effectively heightens the drama and enjoyment of the elaborate eleven tracks. Both Pennington and Rees-Lee’s artistic assuredness (and compatibility) masterfully facilitates the gradual development of these ambitious compositions. This is perhaps best demonstrated via the celestial twinkle of omnichord upon which ‘Jennifer’ unravels over seven-minutes. Vast and delicately decorated with soft percussion and a throbbing synth motif, there’s a gorgeous ethereal quality to the arrangement which does well to broaden the tonal palette of the LP. It’s a moment on Minor Works that never loses its initial sparkle.

Similarly, there’s a richness to Pennington’s engaging songwriting that has you eagerly anticipating certain verses or lines regardless of how many times you’ve heard them. Here, you’re just as likely to chuckle at lines like “Is that the sound of Sarah Brightman singing ‘Requiem'” on ‘Lifetime Achievement’ and absorb the sorrow permeating the introspective piano-led ‘Vacancy’:

“It was New Year’s Evе the last time I saw you
A kiss across a crowded room
From your circle of suitors and saviours
The names of whom I never knew

And if by chance you never knew
Yeah, if by chance you never knew
There’s someone that you mattered to.”

The details Pennington puts into both the interior and exterior settings of the work is truly astounding. Furthermore, a cinematic sheen across Popular Music’s compositions firmly establishes this as a record that demands your attention and promises to take the listener on an enriching aural experience. This is apparent from the very opening moments of ‘Bad Actors’, which is introduced with a shrill Hitchcockian display of strings accompanied by the toll of ominous bells. It sets the scene for an unsettling 1960s psychological thriller where “​​Carnivores and murder tours still stalk Cielo Drive / The faults on which Los Angeles resides.” This sinister atmosphere is enhanced with an eerie vocal harmony akin to Mia Farrow’s lullaby-like hum in the opening of Rosemary’s Baby. A Gothic shadow is cast on ‘Chekhov’s Gun’, a sombre synth fills the spacious composition like a faint mist with rich guitar flourishes and strings complete the set dressing as Pennington – in perhaps his shining performance – sings, “I’m grateful you believed in me / But all stories tend towards tragedy, in time.” As you can see, Minor Works is abundant with beautifully wrought and witty words, making it almost impossible to pick one example of his deft turn of phrase.

Similarly, Prudence Rees-Lee is equally fluent in crafting tremendously textured arrangements, as was exemplified on Popular Music’s 2020 debut Popular Music Plays In Darkness. Here, she successfully builds sonic worlds that you can see and feel, making this a remarkably multi-sensory record. Quite simply, there is nothing minor about this work. Together, Rees-Lee and Pennington make songs that not only make a difference but leave a lasting impression.