Release Date: Sep 2, 2014
Record label: Asawa Kuru
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
For over two decades, Blonde Redhead have made a career of channeling their experiments into music that's different than what came before, yet unmistakably theirs. Penny Sparkle's hushed electronics -- an equal and opposite reaction to 23's maximalist shoegaze -- made for an album that felt like a dream that couldn't quite be recalled upon waking. But instead of turning up the volume again, Barragán barely rises above a whisper.
‘Barragán’, the title of Blonde Redhead’s latest adventures into twisted urbanite indie, means ‘warrior’ in ancient Spanish – a translation in keeping with the New York sophisticates’ swashbuckling approach to convention on this ninth studio album. From the weird, wiry guitar bends of ‘No More Honey’ and smoky souk slink of ‘Dripping’ to ‘The One I Love’, whose waltzing keys collapse into a thrilling thatch of dissonant sci-fi synths, ‘Barragán’ follows 2010’s Scandipop-influenced ‘Penny Sparkle’ with a darker, experimental sprawl. Nineteen years after beginning their career in a NYC underground scene inspired by ’70s no wave bands, on ‘Barragán’, Blonde Redhead continue to splinter off into an exciting world of their own.
For the better part of their 21 years, Blonde Redhead's intimate and patterned songwriting style have made them a unique voice in indie rock. With their last three albums, in particular, they developed into makers of elegiac dream pop. Although 2010's uneven Penny Sparkle failed to win over critics, Barragán marks a return to their intricate form.Produced by Drew Brown (Radiohead, Beck), the band were urged to limit their arrangements, shedding the many layers they used over the last decade's output for a more scaled-back approach.
The notion of presence seems fitting for a band like Blonde Redhead to explore 21 years into its career. Their place in music history was forged in the early ‘90s as art-punk rockers and secured as dream-pop maestros (and arguably wavered as synthy surveyors). Now on the New York-based trio’s ninth record Barragán, the focus shifts inward. And it turns out that Blonde Redhead has morphed into a sparse, almost trance-like, sonic existence.
On their ninth album, this New York trio – once swathed in moody synth layers and art-house dance beats – have pared down to their delicate, creaky bones. Barragán is haunted by the romantic split between singer-guitarists Kazu Makino and Amedeo Pace, most notably on the exes' spare, bewitching duet "Seven Two." The band is at its most magnetic on the single "No More Honey," where Makino warns, "I won't be sorry," in her lullaby-soft voice, just before Pace's shoegaze guitar sweeps her back in for a dreamy waltz. This record is the sound of what's left after a breakup: the push and pull of fragile and forceful, with all the veneers stripped completely away.
New York trio Blonde Redhead could never be accused of finding a niche and sticking to it since their formation (initially as a quartet) in 1993; their eight albums to date have taken us on a tour – primarily through dream pop and shoegaze fields admittedly – that has often delved into experimental art. Penny Sparkle from 2010 is their most recent offering. Subject to mixed reviews, it was seen by some as a backward step after the two most revered efforts Misery Is A Butterfly (2004) and 23 (2007).
Throughout their 21-year career, Blonde Redhead have taken each new album as a stop alongside a winding path, finding a wrinkle to their sound (be it post-punk, shoegaze, dream pop, lounge jazz, or what-have-you) and following it a few steps further. So, even an album like the limp, synth-heavy Penny Sparkle, an album that seemed to have walked far off that path, could be shrugged off pretty quickly. And, in fact, Barragán, the follow-up to that 2010 misstep, course-corrects well, incorporating the most interesting elements of that electronic side trek while returning a few steps closer to their strengths.
Review Summary: Where we're going, we don't need roads. New York City trio Blonde Redhead exist in that particular space in the music continuum where you’d be hard pressed to describe the band to a stranger, but when you hear a Blonde Redhead song, there’s no doubting who it is. Part of this can be chalked up to Kazu Makino’s ethereal, fragile vocals, and the way twin brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace play against her haunting lyrics, Simone’s own voice often providing a distinctive counterpoint.
The next-to-the-last song on Blonde Redhead’s new album, Barragán, is titled “Penultimo”. Since when have Blonde Redhead been so literal? Since 2010’s Penny Sparkle, if we’re being honest, a lackluster album that traded in the trio’s lush, fathomless mystique for little more than a cellophane wisp of no-calorie beauty. It sparkled, and that was about it.
Oh how the mighty have fallen. Blonde Redhead is best known for their dream pop masterwork, 2007’s 23, but followed up that album with 2010’s Penny Sparkle, a record that drew some mixed reviews at best, and outright derision in some quarters, for abandoning its guitars in favor of keyboard textures and sparseness. So, now, almost exactly four years after Penny Sparkle took its bow, we see Blonde Redhead going back to the drawing board to create an utterly barren album in Barragán.
Blonde Redhead doesn’t so much dabble in different genres as fleck their canvas with them. Their back-catalogue is wrought with traces of jazz, shoegaze, no-wave, punk, noise rock, psychedelic rock, indie pop, ambient techno and plenty more. Yet across their 21-year lifespan thus far, they’ve achieved a sort of aesthetic consistency and a sound that is uniquely their own—Japanese singer Kazu Makino’s casual coos, Italian/Canadian twins Amedeo and Simone Pace’s fuzzy guitar plucks, piercing vocals and aggressive drum taps.
At first listen it’s tempting to call this, the ninth LP from Blonde Redhead, a quieter, gentler approach than one might expect from the New York City trio. In truth, turning down — in this case, almost to a whisper — has always been in the band’s bag of tricks. The difference here is how consistent the introverted affect persists. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for instrumental disorder; “Dripping” works up a tidy little groove before gradually spinning out of its own orbit.
Throughout Blonde Redhead’s 21-year history, the band has undergone a series of gradual but still drastic reinventions. Beginning as an abrasive, New York City-based art-punk outfit, singer Kazu Makino, along with vocalist/guitarist Amedeo Pace and twin-brother drummer Simone, received early cosigns and production help from Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. In 2000, the band drifted toward the ethereal and accessible with Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons, solidifying the toned-down shift with 2004’s gorgeous and delicate Misery Is A Butterfly.
opinion byBRENDAN FRANK TOPS, Picture You Staring TOPS may share a label with the likes of Braids, Grimes and Majical Cloudz, but unlike those more forward-thinking acts, they draw inspiration from a long-gone era. Their sophomore effort is a slightly anemic take on disco-flecked art pop, drawing to mind the tattered DIY ethic of Ariel Pink, the happy-go-lucky outlook of Tennis, and the stylish slow-motion vignettes of Warpaint. Picture You Staring is agreeable enough to listen to, and the production, executed by the band themselves, is nuanced enough that you will pick up new details every time you listen.