What the hell?
Back at university, I remember there being a point at which my dissertation tutor told me to put the whole thing on hold and read up on the meaning and application of arthouse. I spent approximately two hours of my life reading relatively uncomplex definitions and unpackings, but damn would it have been easier if he’d just sent me away and told me to check out Blonde Redhead (I’m sure he could have done, too – he pitched surrealist film to me using Pixies lyrics and half the reason I originally asked him to help me out was over a rant we had about the bonus tracks on Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising, but I digress).
Sorry, what’s arthouse?
One big hybrid, innit. A bastard product of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art that’s not pure enough to satisfy elitists, too edgy to sell to the mainstream, but an exciting box of treats for anyone who doesn’t mind getting their paws a little muddy. It derives most of its innovation from pastiche and appropriation rather than groundbreaking originality, and the styles it draws from are often both a little behind the times in their sourcing and a cut above in the way they’re dealt with. Bonus points for any cross-cultural, trans-geographical or oh-it’s-quite-hard-to-label-comprehensively content, all of which amounts to a notoriously broad collection of categories. You get the picture.
Sorry not sorry for the wank onslaught, but all this fits Blonde Redhead down to a tee and explains both their critical consensus and favouring demographics with uncommon accuracy. A longstanding power trio consisting of identical Italian twins Amedeo and Simone Pace and Japanese frontwoman Kazu Makino, they occupy a highly respected status within and without their homeground NYC scene despite never having released anything at the top of the pile for the fanatics and gatekeepers of their genres in question (in order: noise rock, chamber pop, shoegaze, dream pop). At first glance, it’s easy to see why they attract stiff appreciation more than passionate admiration: there’s a distinct craft to their music, but it’s distant and often phlegmatic in a way that hardly invites best-thing-ever statements from the hype brigade, and is mistakenly dismissible as shallow formalism by the purists – but that’s only half the story.
It took me a bloody long time to get the full sense of it, but I think Blonde Redhead embody more than the crossroads appeal of frosty arthouse practitioners, tap into a deceptively deep emotional reserve, and are ultimately a much more rewarding and enduring band than many people give them credit for. I don’t have many wild claims to make about them, though I will say that their masterpiece 23 is hands down a stronger and more worthwhile shoegaze outing than Loveless (a hill I will happily die on); the gist is more that their discography is a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts deal where each album is a distinct and necessary lens for viewing an evasive thread of intrigue and anxiety that runs in various forms through everything the group ever touched.
More than the sum of its parts? Everything? Well, yes. Let’s go there, no half measures: every single Blonde Redhead full-length or significant orbital album, in order of release. Make it to the end, and if I’ve failed to map out the full picture in suitable clarity, you’ll at least have a handful of killer records to sink some plays into. Without further ado…
Blonde Redhead (1995)
In the beginning, there was the word, and the word was Sonic Youth, and the man from Sonic Youth (lil metronome boy Steve Shelley) produced Blonde Redhead’s self-titled debut, and – shock horror – it sounded a helluva lot like Sonic Youth. Phew, one sentence in and I already need a drink. Fuck. On which note, Blonde Redhead is just under half an hour of skronky bastardisation between angular guitar melodies and brittle dissonance that will sound deeply familiar to anyone acquainted with the O.G. kings and queen of New York scuzz, and perhaps similarly so to those who aren’t.
Is this a good thing? Well, there’s no getting around the fact that the boys and (at this point, two) girls of Blonde Redhead hadn’t fully come into their own yet. Those corrosive guitar tones are pulled straight from Goo and rehabilitated with extra mids; Kazu Makino’s icy tones and ear-piercing shrieks are very much under the shadow of Kim Gordon’s gruff delivery here; Amedeo Pace shoots for a similar edge to Thurston Moore, despite leaning into nasal urgency rather than affected swagger, and I had totally forgotten that bassist Maki Takahashi (that’s right, her (?)) was ever a member of this band before hitting up the album’s wiki page to confirm the spelling of “Sciuri Sciura” (thank God for proofreading). Whatever she is on here, she’s not her own thing. Simone Pace’s drumming, at least, is a cut above Shelley’s own and a damn sight more interesting, but an interesting drummer alone does not make a band special (sorry, Danny Carey (did you know that Blonde Redhead were due to open for Tool before Covid bricked on every gig this side of the metaverse?)).
This all sounds either cheap or like a downer or both at once, but – but! – Blonde Redhead is still frequently excellent and I have a huge soft spot for it. Here’s the goss: it’s easy to take this record as little more than a shameless clarification of influence, but it’s also an equally strong, if far less obvious, statement of the calculated arthouse reserve and undercurrent of anxiety that permeates all the band’s work. Distant, troubled, and oddly compelling is the fix that elevates Blonde Redhead from a crafty appropriation act to a consistently excellent band, and this record dishes out more than enough of it to be considered a successful debut. “Without Feathers”, “I Don’t Want U” and the cryptic outro “Girl Boy” brood like a teenager over a photo album’s worth of regrets; “Astro Boy” and “Mama Cita” veer into knife-edge bursts of violence more immediately arresting than anything else in the band’s canon; album highlight “Swing Pool” is a slowburning greasy smear left on the inside of a car window by the intermittent descent of some sleeping, thoroughly depressed head sluggishly coming to terms with some opaque bullshit that nobody will ever be able to articulate or understand outside of that single, unknowingly harrowing greasemark. It would be a standout on any Sonic Youth album and is likely sisters with, I dunno, “Starpower” in some alternative universe where songs have sisters and physically ride shotgun in cars driven by (probably) people.
So, yes, this record is good. How much of it did I just list for check-these-out reasons? Six out of eight songs: nice! It’s an excellent debut. There are obvious concessions to be made about the way it wears another band’s sound like an older sibling’s outgrown wardrobe, not to mention the sheer pointlessness of second-track clunker “Sciuri Sciura”, but there’s a darkness and intrigue here that are very true to the essence of whatever Blonde Redhead were from genre shift to genre shift, making for an infectious, succinct and ultimately rewarding start point. Get on it.
Tracks you need in your life: “Swing Pool”, “Astro Boy”, “Mama Cita”
La Mia Vita Violenta (1995)
How do you avoid a sophomore slump? Break the fuck up immediately! Goodness knows that would have made my work so much easier here. But it was not to be: Blonde Redhead did not break after their first album. They released more albums, and their second one was called La Mia Vita Violenta, which is Italian for “my violent Vita”. It epitomises two excellent methods of avoiding the sophomore slump, as follows:
- Sound more whatever your other albums would go on to sound like, and less like whoever you were accused of ripping off on your debut.
- Drop both of your first albums within the same year before anyone can accuse you of stagnating or overthinking.
Foolproof, right? Well, kinda. Despite building on their self-titled in a range of credible and highly necessary ways, this record somehow misses the spot for me and lands as the least engaging and memorable of their early albums; if it weren’t for one particular atrocity that we won’t get to for quite some time, it would probably be at the bottom of my ranking.
But, hey, it’s a good record! Here’s why: a lot of their superobvious noise rock influences are backed up by kraut worship that gives the music a much more specific form and comes out beautifully in the rhythm section (now featuring one-time bassist Toko Yasuda; bye bye Maki Takahashi!). Kazu sounds a bit less like Kim Gordon, a little more like PJ Harvey (“I Am There While You Choke On Me”, hot damn), and a lot more like the inimitable vocalist who would go on to breathe such unforgettable breaths of ice through headphones the world over. Most importantly, the band were starting to pull together a vocabulary that felt truly under their control, coining increasingly distinct melodies on the likes of “Violent Life” (English for Vita Violenta), eschewing melody full stop on the likes of “Bean” (great title), and pinning down those signature cold-edgy Blonde Redhead minor chords of which you’ll be hearing a lot on both this album and its successors.
That’s already a lot of positives, but the band went a step further and threw in a couple of highlight tracks that occupy unique places in their discog as a whole. To my knowledge, “Harmony” is the only convincing shot anyone has ever or will ever take at blending Spiderland with a sitar jam, and the band show off their newfound dynamic confidence so well that we’re all the better for it; on the other hand, Blonde Redhead have never had another banger quite like “(I Am Taking Out My Eurotrash) I Still Get Rocks Off”. I don’t know if this should be considered one of their signature tracks or just a particularly badass and outlandish way to kick off an album that ultimately wound up as neither of those things, but it sits well for me either way.
So, what went wrong? Man, the stakes are low on a lot of these tracks. There’s a largely superficial, mostly unwarranted stigma of dispassionate artsy navel-gazing around this band in general, but rarely does it brush as close to pertience as on the entire second half of La Mia Vita Violenta. I’ve spent a fair chunk of time with this record (we’re talking 10+ plays per track, minimum), and while I can vibe with “Bean” or “Jewel” individually, I find it very hard to make it through the post-”Harmony” tracks in sequence and feel like all I witnessed was a formalist showcases of how many unorthodox-but-unextravagant noises can be made with an electric guitar over steady rhythms and straightforward songwriting molds. “U.F.O.” almost falls into the same trap, but is saved by Simone’s startlingly cool drum performance and a less rigid overall structure. Preferential as it is, this gripe sucks the life from much of the album for me, but hey, it’s decent enough on its own terms not to need my favouritism.
Tracks you need in your life: “Harmony”, “(I Am Taking Out My Eurotrash) I Still Get Rocks Off”
Fake Can Be Just As Good (1997)
I just love it when bands sound like other bands. So did Blonde Redhead! Apparently weary of whichever contemporary printhouse gatekeepers were curating the echelons of ‘90s indie posercore, this album’s title squares up to the band’s ongoing detraction as a ripoff affair and rolls its shoulders in that give it a break way that only true indie poser[core]s can pull off. This is as posery as title statements get, but that’s ok because Fake Can Be Just As Good rocks – hard! Harder than any other Blonde Redhead, in fact; so hard that it constantly straddles the lines between noise-rock and post-hardcore, ending up less in Sonic Youth’s ballpark and more on the end of Unwound and Fugazi. It’s meaner and more aggressive than the band’s previous output, packed with serrated chords, cold-eyed harmonic spew, and grooves nasty enough to wilt houseplants from here(?) to Washington State. I know this because the album’s frankly monstrous basslines were laid down by none other than Vern Rumsey (rest in peace), of Unwound, of Olympia, of backwater America. The cultured among you will recall that Rumsey had patented a straight masterclass of groovy post-hardcore mayhem on Unwound’s Repetition just the previous year, and you can rest assured that Fake Can Be Just As Good contains liberal pleatings of whatever cloth that record was cut from. Can it really be just as good? You bet!
I think this tracklist might have the steep ratio of highlights of any Blonde Redhead album; the band hardly tend towards bloat to begin with, but most of their records have at least a couple of hmm moments where whatever tone they’re chasing gets a little too evasive for its own good. Not so here! Fake Can Be Just As Good is one banger after another: “Symphony of Treble” and “Oh James” are particular standouts, but the band generally go from strength to strength armed with a stern intensity and a newfound knack for continuity and reprise (the way both “Symphony of Treble” and “Ego Maniac Kid” call back to motifs and textures from “Kazuality”’s opening shivers is a particular delight to this end). Their best ideas pack enough chills to freeze the coffee in your thermos, and even the weaker ones tend to vindicate themselves – who cares that “Water” starts out as a direct tribute to “Corpse Pose” and “Unauthorized Autobiography” when its second half jams out more with more insidious viscosity than the blackest treacle over the coldest of pancakes? While obviously not the most original Blonde Redhead album, it ironically lands as more of their more inspired and engaging outings; its smash-up of EVOL, Repetition, and (to a point) Red Medicine is faithful to the qualities that made those three records so fantastic to begin with and the band’s performance is worthy of being included in the same conversations, even now.
Tracks you need in your life, “Symphony of Treble”, “Oh James”, “Ego Maniac Kid”, “Kazuality”
In An Expression Of The Inexpressible (1998)
I may have introduced this band as an acquired taste with an evasive core spirit and a proclivity for hooks that take their sweet time to open up your bloodstream, but even on that basis, good fucking luck getting into this one. Unless you’re coming in with a decent grounding in no wave or dissonant post-punk/post-hardcore, In An Expression Of The Inexpressible will likely stand as the least accessible album in the Blonde Redhead canon.
Quite right, too! It’s by far the least melodic and strangest item in their catalogue, and by extension their first album that sounds like it could never have been made by anyone else; the sentiments of Fake Can Be Just As Good suddenly seem like a different era. It was also Kazu and the two Paces’ first time working as a trio proper, and I would like to say that doing so opened up a new range of creative pathways for them, but I’m quite frankly lost as to what the process and rationale must have been for many of the decisions made here. I mean, who the hell starts a record with a track as icy and uninviting as “Luv Machine” only to follow it with a cyclical anti-carnival of chromatic sluggishness as desolate as “10”? Things seem to even out for a while, but this album keeps its twists hard and fast and its melodies jagged and uncomfortable. Forget Unwound, forget Fugazi, forget Sonic Youth: none of those bands are an adequate primer for this album’s deep end. “Speed X Distance = Time” is an impossibly shrill warping of lullabye frequencies into nightmare, the title-track is an almost comedic (and extremely awesome) deconstruction of literally everything from conventional vocal inflections to rhythmic stability , while “Justin Joyous” sees the album palpably choking itself to death in clanging voiceless dissonance.
Fortunately, Blonde Redhead were never a band to piss around, and they own this sound at every turn; its greyscale aesthetic and stubborn opposition to user-friendliness make for the coolest and most willful album in their arsenal, and it’s a surprisingly unified experience. Some credit for this must go to producer Guy Picciotto (from that band Fugazi – you should check them!), but there’s only one true MVP here. Y’know how this band (kind of) has Amedeo albums and (definitely) has Kazu albums, just like (*sigh*) Sonic Youth kind of had Thurston albums and very definitely had Kim albums? Yeah, fuck it, this is Simone Pace’s album through and through. This was the record that made me realise what an underadored god that man is behind the drumkit; no flashy bullshit, no treading on his bandmates’ toes, but hot damn the way he controls these tracks’ tone and pacing is impeccable. The way he constantly shifts and breaks the balance of “Luv Machine” with the most economical of movements feels like a Deerhoof song in slow motion; the pulse he sets on the absolute bangers “Distilled” and “This Is For Me And I Know Everyone Knows” is deadpan genius against the firestorms Amedeo and Kazu whip up, and don’t get even get me started on what he does on “Missile ++”, one of the more awesome-as-oxygen outings of midtempo deadpan to pop up in any band’s discog.
So, yes, this album has good drums. What other guidance can I offer (good Lord, why am I a position to write a guide on anything paha)? Okay, absolutely do not start here! If you’re not going chronologically, definitely get through Fake Can Be Just As Good before you check this; it’ll probably need a little more time, and you might as well get stuck into the band’s sound in general to make life easy for yourself. This is likely the favourite Blonde Redhead album of a tiny minority of people, but those people are all extremely cool and precious (somewhat like Amnesiac diehards, but even cooler because Radiohead are not a cool band and Blonde Redhead accidentally are). If you’re browsing this to cherrypick which of the band’s albums you should and shouldn’t hear, don’t pass on this! It’s one of their most unique records, and the only one of their early run that feels like an independent counterpart to the scenes the band came out of, rather than a self-explanatory product of them. This is my guidance; this album is an underrated gem and you should learn to love it. It gets bonus points for having the band’s best artwork and would outgun Fake Can Be Just As Good as the best of their noise-rock era, if it weren’t for that album’s bass-sized advantage. Winner
Tracks you need in your life: “Missile ++”, “Suimasen”, “Distilled”, “Luv Machine”, “In An Expression Of The Inexpressible”
Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons (2000)
Having pulled the radical step of making music that didn’t sound like it could have come from anybody else on In An Expression Of The Inexpressible, Blonde Redhead went one step further and kicked out noise rock altogether. Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons is a gritty alt rock fever dream that finally embraces the band’s fragile, haunted tone beyond the realms of feedback and angular dissonance, fleshing it with more oily pluckings of melodic overdrive than you can wipe off your windscreen. It is also home to the only Blonde Redhead track many people will ever hear, courtesy of Rick and Morty S01E10; as far as one-song samples of a band’s entire careers go, I guess you could do worse than the Chopin-derived “For the Damaged Coda”, even if it is, uh, a bitesize piano outro? Good track!
Unfortunately, it is an inevitable part of my crusade to spotlight this underappreciated band’s work that I call out their (technically) most popular record for being their most overrated. The transition out their noise era carried through many fundamental aspects of their sound and songwriting, but it reshuffled the deck when it came to orbital strengths and weaknesses, and boy oh boy was the flow (?) of gravity unkind to Amedeo on this one. Gotta call a spade a spade here: man’s nasal whinge was at home on the band’s abrasive material, but it’s misplaced as hell on the melody-driven moodiness of “Melody Of Certain Three” and “Loved Despite Of Great Faults”, two of the weaker rockers to begin with. He fares better on “A Cure” (and on the following three Blonde Redhead records!), but this is without a shadow of a doubt Kazu’s album, and there’s a palpable imbalance in the ease with which she takes the lead. Every stylistic twist seems to land in her favour: a drastic departure for the band on “In Particular”’s cryptic halfway house between disco and indie-pop? Perfect opener. A doomy antithesis to whatever constitutes an uplifting power ballad in “Hated Because of Great Qualities”? Instant highlight. A blunt exercise in (probable) autobiography on a disarming foray into new wave? Man, “This Is Not” is an ideal showstopper. A brisk shot-in-the-arm of chaotic screaming to round it on off “Mother”? Why the hell not. While she brought plenty of character and contour to the last two Blonde Redhead albums in particular, Kazu finds herself in command of a far more versatile set of outlets for her ghostly delivery here, coming into her own at last.
I don’t want to undersell this album too badly because it wound up as a watershed moment for the band, and Kazu’s tracks are both pure killer and great individual starting points for new listeners, but it’s a little scatty in its overall tone and too deeply fractured in its sudden capital-S split between Kazu and Amedeo tracks to chart particularly highly in the band’s wider scheme. This record pretty much put me off the band for close to two years, and I would hate it to do the same to anyone else for predictable reasons. Apropos nothing, I would also like to dump on “Ballad of Lemons”, surely the most infuriating segue track since “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 2” ( turns out that came out two years later – I guess the lemon gang did pioneer something here). Final comments? Is it too much to ask that you listen to two songs max. from this and then jam at least three other Blonde Redhead records before coming back to the rest of it? I hope not!
Tracks you need in your life: “Hated Because of Great Qualities”, “In Particular”, “This Is Not”
Misery Is A Butterfly (2004)
Easily the darkest, most vulnerable and overall uncomfortable Blonde Redhead album, Misery Is A Butterfly is often viewed as their best with good reason. I regret to say that it’s also a real backstory album – and I regret this because the backstory in question is rough. Back in 2002, Kazu Makino was badly trampled in a riding accident, facing extensive surgical reconstruction that left her jaw wired shut for months – hardly a desirable situation for anyone, least of all a singer at the top of her game who then herself confronted with further months of physio just to be able to make her mouth work the way it used to. Though the band have tried to play it down, there’s a fragility and emotional directness here that sounds unlike anything else they ever made, and it’s hard to look at these songs outside of that awful context and its resonance. Remember how when Skeleton Tree dropped, the whole world was raving about how every detail of that record seemed steeped in Nick Cave’s well-documented trauma, even though very little of it was touched on explicitly? Misery Is A Butterfly is kind of like this – or, at least, it’s frequently treated in the same way – although the bookending tracks do explore the album’s subtext with a flat-handed straightforwardness. Opener “Elephant Woman” in particular is one of the most gripping and horrifying tracks in the band’s arsenal, immediately introducing a grim tone overlaid with one of Kazu’s most ghostly performances to date; you don’t have to look far to imagine where it all comes from.
Having established that, there’s far more going on here than the aftershocks of one moment of tragic history. Misery Is A Butterfly’s chilling vulnerability is down to craft as much as context; in a shift of style even more radical than the two that preceded it, Blonde Redhead drew up a potentially unique combination of chamber pop, indie, and hints of dream pop, fleshed out in wavering string accompaniments and dour keyboard motifs. It’s a distinct look by the standards of any band, and it comes with a significant revision to their approach to melody: where their motif were once jagged and dissonant to the point of callousness, here they fixate on a brittle simplicity so fragile they seem as though they’ll disintegrate if you listen too intently. All this leads to an uneasy feeling of intimacy as delicately constructed as it is emotionally laden. I guess the best spotlight for this is “Anticipation”, a heartbreakingly strained centrepiece, but it permeates the whole album; many of the tracks that aren’t outright harrowing are at least grim and more than a little creepy. Amedeo has a knockout with the terrifying “Doll Is Mine” and his signature track, “Falling Man”, while Kazu lands yet a firm winner with the childlike murder ballad “Melody”; while less sentimentally laden, these tracks’ darkness is no less haunting.
All this comes to a head on “Pink Love”, a rare duet between Kazu and Amedeo and the album’s climactic epic. The track’s cabaret warping of shoegaze is a stunner to begin with, capturing gloom like a distant light disappearing into the mouth of a long, long tunnel, but it’s the dynamics of the duet that land it as one of the album’s central statement: intimacy and distance, distance and love, love and sickness, and sickness and recovery all crop up throughout the track, spiralling around one another in a delirious set of contrasts that leave the listener swaying back and forth, trapped in their own suspense. “Storms of petals are pouring down / Pushing their way through our pink love”, croons Kazu, her inflections twisting an innocuous romanticism into her own feverish reality. Whatever this track captures, it seems at once to come from a place emotionally beyond the band, but to be framed in a language firmly under their control; it’s a perfect summation of the album as such. Misery Is A Butterfly is a deeply moving work of trauma, but I think many people – including me, for a while – get a little too fixated on this; its backstory is more catalyst than cause, and the record functions as a creative processing rather than a morbid rumination. For all it’s easy to pigeonhole it as the most chilling and sentimentally charged set of tracks the band ever laid to tape, their trademark reserve and calculated distance are still very much present here, albeit in more subtle ways. The Blonde Redhead sound proved it could weather another drastic shift, and, after all, life goes on. Kazu Makino was riding again only three months after her accident, and she went on to pin the lion’s share of her discomfort on the obstacle it posed to her work as a musician; if that’s not an apt reflection of the strength behind this band’s cold-eyed artistry, I don’t know what is.
Tracks you need in your life: “Anticipation”, “Elephant Woman”, “Pink Love”, “Melody”, “Falling Man”, “Equus”
“I wasn’t even sad or suffering. I was just struggling to write good songs…I could barely move, but we even tried to not cancel our shows when I had my mouth wired…My only thought was ‘How can we play?’” – Kazu Makino (The LA Times, 2007)
I don’t know what the precedent is for following up a claustrophobic chamber opus, but Blonde Redhead went for squirreling themselves away with a loose idea of a new direction, engaging in a reportedly fraught process of first-time self-production (sayonara Guy Picciotto), and almost circumstantially dishing out a seamless masterclass in shoegaze and dream pop. It’s their finest hour, their most accessible work, and an all-time genre high all at once. It is good enough that you should pounce on it immediately regardless of your wider opinions of either shoegaze or Blonde Redhead. 23 is a classic. Listen to it.
There are a number of reasons why this is a cut above the majority of your current shoegaze playlist. An obvious starting point, the aesthetic here is as pristine as anything you could hope for, whether it’s the title-track’s faithful recreation of classic shoegaze fuzz, “Dr. Strangeluv”’s frosty weave of arpeggiated overdrive, or “Heroine”’s sublimation into ethereal layerings. It’s great stuff, but – crucially – the songwriting is always far more than a vehicle for texture. Whichever palette Blonde Redhead draw from, they always give the impression of bending it to an independent atmospheric or narrative scope rather than indulging themselves with a stylistic makeover for the sake of easy indie cred. The best example of this is probably “The Dress”, a wire-taut portrait of a sleazy liaison so evocatively presented that it would likely hold its own in any style; its development is so clear and its delivery so convincing that the accentuating shoegaze tones and brittle leads are more a welcome accentuation more than a primary attraction.
It’s a far cry from the Loveless experience, where the appeal starts and ends in textural meanderings, and 23 is very much the better for it. “Spring And By Summer Fall” is the only instance of the classic gaze-haze directionless swirl, and it’s uncoincidentally the weakest track here. Everything else acquits itself with a lean focus across a deceptively wide variety of styles: we get everything from slick disco (“Silently”) to spangled dream pop (“Heroine”) to exhilarate indie pop (“Top Ranking”), to wraithlike folk (“My Impure Hair”), and the album reaps dividends at every turn. I think it’s telling that the album’s overall sound reportedly took until the mixing stage to come together; these tracks have far too much substance to reduce to shoegaze exhibitions, and any album that can wear an aesthetic this gorgeous like window dressing is coming an intimidating calibre of craft. It’s also telling that said mixing was conducted by none other than Alan Moulder, of My Bloody Valentine and Smashing Pumpkins credentials; the band weren’t half-arsing this one.
On a seperate topic, fuck me does Kazu Makino’s voice have the perfect glacial sheen for this kind of music. On “The Dress” and the devastatingly “My Impure Hair” she lays down performances as chilling as anything on Misery Is A Butterfly, but the more upbeat tracks shake off that album’s gloom and embrace a brighter tone. There are more than enough morose undertones to chew over (and for all its inviting elements, 23 does take a fair bit of chewing over), but this is comfortably the least stoney Blonde Redhead ever sounded. Amedeo holds down the album’s sterner side with great confidence – “SW” and the anxious “Publisher” are two of his finest tracks, and both highlights – while Simone, ever the band’s secret weapon, dishes out a relatively understated but typically creative performance; I can count the number of shoegaze and/or dream pop albums I’ve heard with actively good percussion with fingers on one hand, and this is easily at the top of the pack. Hell, it’s top of any pack. Get on it.
Tracks you need in your life: “23”, “My Impure Hair”, “The Dress”, “Publisher”, “Dr. Strangeluv”, “SW”, “Top Ranking”
Penny Sparkle (2010)
What an underrated treasure! The vague consensus seems to be that Blonde Redhead came down to earth after three albums of leading the pack, and suddenly started catering to bargain bin indie tropes for the aircon gang on this one. This is [i]kind of[/i] accurate insofar as it’s a fairly straightforward run-on from 23 (subtract shoegaze, add dream-pop) and certainly a far cry from the radical shifts that separated every Blonde Redhead album since In An Expression…, but Penny Sparkle is a damn fine dream-pop album and deserves large swathes of your affection.
Just don’t expect any of it to be reciprocated in a hurry; this is the most unapologetically frigid the band ever sounded. The anxious reserve Kazu had been cultivating ever since Misery Is A Butterfly comes to a peak, underpinning performances frostier than your ex’s kitchen that time you went back to collect your things. At points she keeps up her selectively intimate fragility manner as established on past records, but the likes of “Oslo” and “Black Guitar” bring her firmly into the realm of noirish arthouse, inclining an icy shoulder to the likes of Portishead and Goldfrapp (both the Goldfrapp who sound like Portishead and the Goldfrapp who sent your bedsheets to the washing machine). This proves to be a good look for her; her emotional coldness in these tracks complements the huge tension lurking behind her clearly fictional relationship dynamics, resulting in some of her most penetrating chills to date. Imagine a whole album of “The Dress”, and you’re getting there – and it very nearly is a whole album! Amedeo, bless him, handles just one solo track (the serviceable, if pedestrian “Will There Be Stars”) and otherwise confines his vocal duties to the “Black Guitar” verses. Kazu has the upper hand on every post-’90s Blonde Redhead album, but this is the closest she comes to entirely monopolising a record.
On that basis, it’s somewhat ironic that Penny Sparkle ends up as a perplexingly uneven record of two halves. The first half is largely suspect and makes me a little sympathetic to the critical consensus: it’s immediately clear that the band’s songwriting peaked on 23. Opener “Here Sometimes” is a lukewarm mood piece with no character, “Not Getting There” is too halfbaked to make a serious impact, and “Love Or Prison” sets a worrying precedent for rambling Blonde Redhead tracks that take an eternity building nothing out of nothing (more to come on that). A lot of this album is about scaling the complex layerings of 23 back to sparse synth-and-reverb channelings, but these tracks commit the cardinal sin of ‘10s indie and mistake lack of substance for sophistication and understatement. The first half’s saving grace is easily “My Plants Are Dead”, one of the band’s crown jewels. This track finds the band’s bleached-out ambience matched with some of their most focused writing, and the result is a genre highlight for bedroom pop as a whole, similar but far superior to what the likes of Beach House were artlessly cutting out with potato peelers that same year. It’s as affecting as the bleakest breakup track, but it turns out that the lyrics were adapted from a series of comically pissy texts Kazu received from one of her NY pals: that’s the power of artsy aloofness for you. My mother adores this one.
Penny Sparkle so far might look like a simultaneous downer and stodgefest, but oh boy do things come round in the second half. The final five tracks are very nearly the strongest run on any Blonde Redhead album, giving 23’s untouchable opening salvo a run for its money and almost single-handedly dragging the album into the band’s upper echelons. “Oslo” is a Chromatics-esque soundtrack to the best thriller you never saw, the enigmatic title-track is whatever people heard in Two People’s First Body with all the reality TV-ready ham removed, the disarming reassurance of “Everything Is Wrong” lands like a warm hug with cold feet, and the closing pairing of “Black Guitar” with the time-haltingly gripping “Spain” is one for the ages. Each of these tracks vindicates the band’s foray into fridge indie; put together, they turn it into a surprise career highlight. Penny Sparkle should be considered essential for any of the many, many people who routinely spangle their brains to stolid dream pop; for fans of Blonde Redhead, it’s no slouch.
Tracks you need in your life: “My Plants Are Dead”, “Spain”, “Black Guitar”, “Oslo”
Penny Sparkle Remixes (2011)
There are only two reasons why you should bother with this compilation: if, like me, you loved the original Penny Sparkle enough to fuck with hearing those tracks in the most arbitrary of different lights, or if you want to hear Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) make some really stupid shit. As Games (with Joel Ford), his electroclash remix of “My Plants Are Dead” is one of the most laugh out loud awful reworkings I’ve heard of any song, and it’s not nearly as clear a lowlight as it should be.
Remix albums get a lot of stick in general for indulgence or pointlessness or whatever, but this one deserves it. Somewhere halfway through Pantha du Prince’s ten-minute ambient techno sleepwalk through a sparse handful of “Here Sometimes”’ rhythms, I can’t help but wonder whether the creative process here brought joy or inspiration to anyone involved; it feels like a dreary end-in-itself. This song exists, so that there is a remix to go on this remix album. Case closed. SALEM’s warping of the beautiful “Penny Sparkle” into witch house is a similar, though more engaging story, and Kastellet’s somewhat conservative take on “Love Or Prison” is the only worthwhile alternative to its respective original, essentially going through the same motions in the same palette less languorously. My personal favourite has to be Becoming Real’s butchery of “Here Sometimes”, almost four-minutes of mind-erasing jank that at least boasts a solid novelty quotient. It’s a low bar.
Tracks you need in your life: are you kidding?
No beating around the bush: Barragan is freakin’ bad. Not a relative letdown, an excusable blip, a good-thing-their-worst-is-still-okay, and certainly not a true-fans-only deal – it’s a straightforwardly bad album for the same reasons that many bad albums are straightforwardly bad: it has no stakes or momentum, its baroque indie/folk packaging feels like superfluous window dressing for unrelentingly dull songs, and the performances are lackluster as anything coming from a group whose previous standards of consistency suddenly feel like a thorn in their side. None of these songs go anywhere, their palette is sparse to an extent that should feel refined but ultimately comes off as hollow and half-baked.
It’s hard to say how much gets lost in execution. There might be good song somewhere inside “Lady M”, say, but the band trudge through their post-kitsch baroque waltz motions and land a deadeyed non-starter that sets the standard for many to come. In the past, Kazu Makino’s voice evoked the darkest corners of half-forgotten places and voiced obscure emotional truths that few other vocalists would have the courage or sensitivity to pull off. Here, she puts up brown wallpaper and commentates on a b-grade still life. The likes of “Seven Two” and “The One I Love” are similar cirrocumulalaic moments that come and go tracelessly, while lategame longjam “Defeatist Anthem (Harry and I)” shows promise starting off with a hazy-dazy new wave shimmer, quite pretty until it derails into three minutes of useless ambience. The record’s bright spot, “Penultimo”, is easily the most focused track here, trading vocalists from verse to chorus and sustaining a strong sense of intrigue à la arthouse thriller. It’s good stuff, but lands as a degazed reskin of 23’s “The Dress”, just as much a welcome throwback to a time when the band had their shit together as an accidental indictment of Barragan’s upper calibre.
That said, this is far from the most aggravating listen; with the exception of the infuriatingly awful “No More Honey” (by the worst Blonde Redhead track), Barragan is a largely painless waste of time that almost begs to be immediately forgotten. It’s uninspiring, emotionally opaque and vacuously artsy – an immensely frustrating state of affairs considering that certain people have levelled these complaints at every Blonde Redhead release; Barragan’s chief crime is the partial vindication it provides to a line of deadheaded mouthbreathing that had hitherto done nothing but be spectacularly wrong. In this sense, it’s similar to such flops as The National’s I Am Easy To Find or The Flaming Lips’ American Head, dishing out the uncomfortable experience of being able to view an otherwise excellent band from the perspective of longtime dissenters. Unfortunately, this perspective is harder to forget than the album itself, and so you wouldn’t be remiss avoiding the whole thing altogether. Ugh.
Tracks you need in your life: […] “Penultimo”
Freedom of Expression on Barragan (2016)
A remix album for Blonde Redhead’s worst record? Sure, why not. What’s there to lose? Not much, perhaps, but Freedom of Expression on Barragan indicates that there wasn’t all that much to gain either. For the most part these tracks are just vanilla house jams that paste derivative beats over pulseless progressions, vainly trying to extract hooks out of bone-dry melodies. It’s surprisingly homogenous given the range of artists involved, but the pure rigidity of recurrent four-to-the-floor makes it a less vacuous listen than the original. Some of these tracks are inconsequential improvements over the original, some are dead on arrival: Nosaj Thing turns “No More Honey” into a listenable song, while Slumberman’s take on “Penultimo” is more reskin than a remix, forcing the original’s shape and structure into a washing machine makeover that suits it not one bit. Beyond this, there are a couple of decent success stories: Greg Saunier of Deerhoof’s remix of Lady M is much more propulsive than the original, if just as lacking in direction, while Clara-Nova and Gus Seyffer turn “The One I Love” into an unexpected highlight, but whether or not these amount to an overall worthwhile listen is another question entirely. Oh well; at least Barragan looks like a marginally more interesting record now, and these tracks are an improvement on the swill on the Penny Sparkle Remixes EP.
Tracks you need in your life: “The One To Love”, “Lady M on Full Moon”
3 O’Clock (2017)
Hey, an EP! Blonde Redhead have a couple of other EPs, but these are basically addendums to Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons and Misery Is A Butterfly, respectively; Three O’Clock is the only one that stands as its own thing. It’s pretty good! The band mercifully leave Barragan’s diluted baroque flim in the past, instead going for a melodically rich series of chamber pop arrangements. Interestingly, it’s perhaps the most un-vocalcentric release in their discography, and where they do appear, both Kazu and Amedeo sound a little worn-out, not nearly as listless as on Barragan but very much wistful and nostalgic. This is very much cogent with the EP’s wider #energy, which is drawn primarily from the atmosphere and string sections; the former is warmer and cosier than anything else our three heroes laid to tape, the latter is a well-placed reminder that the Pace twins chalked up a degree’s worth of formal training before hitting the NYC scene. Both these aspects are at their best on the highlight “Golden Light”, a sophisticated and appropriately named reverie with a gorgeous instrumental bridge, but all four tracks operate within a similar groove. Taken together, they’re a little dazey, a little dreary, pretty satisfying as a short stylistic revival, but unlikely to hold up at the top of your playlist beyond a few cursive initial spins.
3 O’Clock may not be a highlight release, but it does restore a healthy share of the credibility the band jettisoned so abruptly on Barragan. There are no weak links, which is good because EPs are not allowed weak links, and it’s encouraging to hear our guys and gal flesh out a cosier tone while bringing back sounds they’d hardly touched since Misery Is A Butterfly. Looks like they’ve still got it; long live!
Tracks you need in your life: “Golden Light”, “Where Your Mind Wants to Go”
Kazu – Adult Baby (2019)
I feel a little bad writing on Kazu’s solo album having spent significantly less time with it than any Blonde Redhead release, so I guess treat this as an honourable mention. There’s a lot to mention! The story here is that Kazu went on an extended retreat to the island of Elba, aiming to recover from respiratory problems, and she wound up making an album as part of the process. Since the Pace twins were still a whole world away in New York, it wound up as a solo effort, but the guestlist is hardly understaffed: Kazu draws on an intimidating range of talents, including Atoms for Peace’s Mauro Rofosco (percussion on “Salty” and “Coyote”), Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier (drums on “Meo” and “Undo”) and the legendary Ryuichi Sakamoto (piano and assorted odds and ends on half the album). Needless to say, Amedeo also lends his talents in various guises. What a gang. What a team. To make matters better, the palette is a home game for Kazu: hazy dream pop. What more could anyone want?
When Adult Baby makes good on this potential, the results are glorious. Opener and single “Salty” is an immediate standout, reviving the keyboard motifs of Barragan’s “Defeatist Anthem (Harry & I)” in a delirious loop, a perfect, constantly shifting foundation for some of Kazu’s strongest vocal melodies in years. She and Sakamoto do a stellar job on loops and keys throughout the album, and when her performance does more than carry the ambience, as on “Salty”, the ominous “Coyote” and the spellbinding title-track, she lands her best output since Penny Sparkle. Elsewhere, the album is often too aqueous for its own good; the pacing feels off (“Undo”, “Come Behind Me, So Good!”) or non-existent (“Name And Age”, “Unsure in Waves”) and the atmosphere it’s so clearly rooted for hardly materialises outside of tone and tempo. Much of this album feels stagnant or non-starting, but it does at least land enough highlights not to feel like a waste of potential.
My final thought and main impression is based less on considerations of good or bad and is more to do with the album’s overall sense of contentment and stability. Even more than Misery Is A Butterfly, Adult Baby is deeply rooted in convalescence, and it’s genuinely uplifting to relate the energy floating over these tracks to the sense of strength and healing Kazu articulates in interviews; it’s clear that she, at least, derived quite a bit from this album, and if that sets her in good stead for whatever comes next, so much the better for it. It’s nice to finally hear an album from her that doesn’t feel so rooted in anxiety and vulnerability; every Blonde Redhead album since Misery… can be viewed as gradually kneading out, but this is perhaps the clearest milestone that it’s taken them, or at least Kazu, to somewhere distinctly different but equally trademarked. Good for her.
Tracks you need in your life: “Salty”, “Adult Baby”, “Coyote”
…and that’s it! What a journey, what a great band. Blonde Redhead are currently working on their final album (supposedly – I believe they claimed this for Barragan too), which I’ll be awaiting with bated breath. Regardless of how that turns out, they have a watertight legacy and a composite appeal that both warrant a deep-dive from listeners returning or new alike. You know what to do; skim those ratings, pick an album, do your worst.