Release Date: Sep 14, 2010
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock
New York likes noise, and for the better part of 15 years and nine albums, Blonde Redhead has held a large stake on that claim. Call it a musical cliché, but maturation more often than not walks hand-in-hand with a growing appreciation for subtleties. One and a half decades after striking its first detuned chord, Blonde Redhead’s Penny Sparkle’s atmospheric, dream-induced electro-indie-pop continues the band’s progression towards the perfect hipster lullaby.
It seems unthinkable now that [a]Blonde Redhead[/a] used to be derided for sounding too much like [a]Sonic Youth[/a] (whose drummer [b]Steve Shelley[/b] signed them to his [b]Smells Like Records[/b] label for their self-titled debut album in 1995). No wave is a distant memory on [b]‘Penny Sparkle’[/b], whose gothic gloss bears the fingerprints of producers [b]Alan Moulder[/b] ([a]Depeche Mode[/a]) and [b]Van Rivers & The Subliminal Kid[/b] ([a]Fever Ray[/a]). Twin brothers [b]Amadeo and Simone Pace[/b] and [b]Kazu Makino[/b] have accordingly served up an album of Swedish pop but without any of its saccharine flourishes.
Following an album as majestic and innovative as 23 would be a hefty challenge for any band, so Blonde Redhead went in a very different direction with Penny Sparkle. Intricate, volatile guitar work has been the mainstay of Blonde Redhead's work since the beginning, even when nearly everything else about their music changed. This time, Amedeo and Simone Pace and Kazu Makino pare the guitars down to a bare minimum, letting the electronic flirtations on 23 develop into a full-blown romance.
Over the past 10 years Blonde Redhead has demonstrated how a guitar band can age gracefully into adopting synths. Without appearing trend-conscious, the band has blended keyboards into its standard lineup of voice, guitar and drums. The process has been gradual and, for lack of a better term, organic. The once-raucous band began to explore a less-is-more approach in 1998's In An Expression Of The Inexpressable, which naturally led to 2000's understated Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons and its quiet inclusion of keyboards and loop-like riffs.
Gaining widespread critical recognition has been a slow process for New York based trio Blonde Redhead. Six albums and 12 long years to be precise, having emerged under the tutelage of Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, whose sound Blonde Redhead's occasionally mirrors. Having found themselves as peripheral figures on New York's underground scene for so long, 2004's Misery Is A Butterfly, their first for 4AD, was undoubtedly the catalyst for their ascendancy to the upper echelons of American alt-rock's hierarchy.
After some reading, a bit of research and lots of listening, it’s still near impossible to work out where exactly Blonde Redhead fit in. They seem to be on the margins of scenes or one of those bands that, because their music isn’t easily definable, crop up in new and obscure genres to which only about four other artists belong. “No-wave” and “dream-pop” are the two pigeonholes that get thrown around the most but it’s no easy task; Blonde Redhead are a little bit of lots of things all at once.
Depending on your perspective, Blonde Redhead’s current incarnation on Penny Sparkle is either the end result of a slow, steady evolution, or the last kiss goodbye to what got the group to this point in the first place. While the transformation of Blonde Redhead’s style from hot-and-bothered art-punk to cool electro-pop isn’t exactly a surprising development considering the direction that the NYC trio has been heading since leaving Touch and Go for 4AD, it’s still startling to hear how measured, downbeat, and chilled-out Penny Sparkle is. Chalk it up to artistic growth or self-absorbed navel-gazing, but Blonde Redhead sounds like a band that has become a little too good at what it does for its own sake.
Just a dull sheen On Blonde Redhead’s eighth full-length, the formerly noisy NYC trio continues to slink along the moody, spacey path laid out by its previous three albums. This time, the band has recruited the duo Van Rivers & The Subliminal Kid (who’s produced Fever Ray and remixed Massive Attack and Bat for Lashes) and brought back Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Depeche Mode) to mix the album. If that laundry list of artists doesn’t hint at what to expect, just know that words like “sexy” and “ghostly” will be drastically overused in reviews of Penny Sparkle.
I have a kneejerk inclination to equate Blonde Redhead to Asobi Seksu, and for obvious reasons. Both bands are based out of New York City. Both feature the remote, angelic voices of gifted, Japanese-born female leads. And both rely on a particularly airy brand of dream-pop to express their alienation and lost love.
I have nothing but love for Blonde Redhead. They’re one of those rare, remarkable bands that, despite their long history and ever-growing popularity, have managed to exist on the outskirts of the indie spotlight, unassumingly honing their craft and evolving their musical vocabulary. In 17 years and seven albums, they’ve never taken the easy road or settled into a single sound, but consistently forged ahead toward new sonic territory.
It's a long time now since Blonde Redhead abandoned their guitar-heavy, art-punk beginnings in favour of poised, atmospheric synth-pop. No bad thing when it led to the delicate sophistications of their last album, 23; but on Penny Sparkle that delicacy begins to sound strained and thin. There are exceptions – Here Sometimes and Everything Is Wrong do gain traction on repeated listens – but more often the melodies here are just too slight to leaven the icy production job by Swedish duo Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid.
There's room for both innovators and curators in indie rock, and if you appreciate the latter, perhaps you've found time for Blonde Redhead over the past two decades. Not all of us could be there to experience No Wave, SST-era Sonic Youth, or My Bloody Valentine as actual recording artists firsthand, but as Blonde Redhead stated on their 1997 album, Fake Can Be Just As Good. The group has always strived to be a gateway to cool and, as such, would probably take it as a compliment to suggest they never sounded like they could've been from anywhere other than New York.
Seamless and polished, unhurried and wonderful, sparkling with a new-found black beauty. Reef Younis 2010 Seventeen years. It’s an eternity. Countries have fallen and marriages have crumbled in less time, so it’s pretty remarkable that Blonde Redhead have not only survived this long but have continued to prosper, now releasing one of their finest works to date.