Review Summary: Another new direction for Blonde Redhead; this one's just a little more drastic
It's like Blonde Redhead enjoys messing with us. And this new album here is just another case in point. Penny Sparkle
sounds like a transitional record, an attempt to deviate from what came before (whatever that may be) by staking out new ground. Thing is, so has Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons
, in pointedly different ways: Melody
beckoned towards a warm, stark sound; 23
was large, expansive, and ambitious. Both were flawed records that showcased a band that was uncomfortable in their new clothes, and both hinted at remarkable things to come. And then, with those following records, Blonde Redhead deviated from the proverbial course, by either crafting something completely unworthy (Misery is a Butterfly
!) or by doing something totally different. Either way, they've been leaving us fumbling in the cold.
This is how albums like Penny Sparkle
are created, being the aforementioned curveball that succeeds 23
. Penny Sparkle
is the first Blonde Redhead record to make absolutely no sense in consideration with the rest of the band's discography: it's an airtight, synth-dominated, ridiculously catchy dream-/electro-pop record that does away with anything that Blonde Redhead's ever done before, save for the captivating melodies and the slow, almost funereal tempos. It's a gamble that you'd think could be potentially career-sinking if it wasn't done well.
Thankfully, Penny Sparkle
mostly is, in its own unique way. Stark and subdued, Penny Sparkle
applies the kind of natural melancholy that dominated the band's last few records to something pristinely artificial. As soon as "Here Sometimes" opens the record, you hear a thumping, mechanical drumbeat and something that sounds like steam hissing: it all literally sounds like machinery. Instrumentally, it's like Penny Sparkle
is heartless: everything sounds endlessly labored over and computerized, with no room allotted for any sort of human touch; this can be uncomfortably unemotional. This straightforward and fussy approach to songwriting does let Blonde Redhead focus on delivering their most gratifying melodies to date: "Not Getting There," "Black Guitar," and "Spain" are simply ridiculously catchy, however forlorn and frosty they might sound.
All of this is almost overwhelmingly cold and desolate, so it's really no surprise that Penny Sparkle
's best songs are when vocalists Kazu Makino and Amedeo Pace add a little life and gravitas to the music. In "Not Getting There" and "Oslo", Makino seems to almost overcome the detachment and lifelessness of the music with her strained vocals; the effect of her actually trying to make herself be fully heard and understood over the blanketing synths and throbbing drum machines is captivating. However, Makino is just as content to sound as equally detached on many of the songs as well. This either makes for some really chilled, relaxed listening or, at Penny Sparkle
's worst, creates the effect that Makino just doesn't really care about what she's singing: songs like these are less textural and subdued than laconic and lazy, with the title track and the too-long "Love or Prison" to be the greatest offenders.
's brisk length works to its advantage: music this glacial just can't be endured for too long. But this isn't to say Penny Sparkle
doesn't (possibly) foretell a interesting future for Blonde Redhead; in fact, I'd say I'm hoping more than ever before that the band sticks with this newfangled direction, to see if they can work out the kinks and make the kind of record Penny Sparkle
could've been. Of course, by saying that, I'm setting myself up to be even more disappointed when Blonde Redhead throws another curveball at me with their next record; this might have to do.