Review Summary: a moody synth-heavy cousin to the sound of their previous album "23". More Electronic then ever, their sound has gained a bittersweetness to it all.
When I first saw Blonde Redhead at Coachella 2007, It was one of memorably amazing concert experiences. Performing mostly songs off their 2007 album “23″ the sound was gorgeous and overwhelming. Despite hearing the album prior to that show, it was immediately apparent that the album was worth returning to. Return to it I did, and it quickly became one of my favorite albums. Blonde Redhead return now with their next album “Penny Sparkle” with much of the same tricks and some evolution of their sound.
“Penny Sparkle” is in a lot of ways a sequel to the sound of “23″. For those not yet initiated to the recent Blonde Redhead sound, that basically means it occupies this rich and lush sound emanating from simple and restrained guitar lines accented by the incorporation of electronic beats and synth pads. Kazu’s vocals can only really be described as the most beautifully haunting voice you’ve ever heard. I really mean it. Her Japanese accent and whispering delivery makes her one of the most interesting vocalists to listen to. Guitarist Amedeo also sings a smaller batch of songs, and on “Penny Sparkle” less then ever as he only appears for 2 songs.
This collection of songs sound like they are more aligned on a specific and precise sound then ever before. Where as “23″ felt propelled by a vision with the songs feeling more varied within that sound, Penny Sparkle is an album where every song is pushing a very uniform musical vision. The result is a an album that feels like a unified piece of art, that definitely requires an interest in their new direction. Basically, if you don’t like it a few songs in, just forget it. Where this ends up being a strength is you feel like you are constantly going down this deeper rabbit hole of sound. It leaves you in a very specific mood after its 48min duration.
Where the album truly shines is just how restrained it all is. Recalling one of my favorite albums of last year “XX” by “The XX” in its subtle strokes of whispered songwriting that still takes you on a deep journey. One of the albums best tracks “Love or Prison” takes you through a 6min tunnel at a slowly rising pace that begins with a repetitive ping, turns into single and powerful notes ringing out on the guitar, glides smoothly into a whispered verse, synthed out chorus, ending out on a repeated phrase “is this love or prison"” delivered in a voice halfway point between singing and speaking. It becomes clear this is work coming from a very true place.
Some of the other strong tracks include the more upbeat (relative to the rest of the songs) opener “Here Sometimes”, synth-propelled mood-rocker “Not Getting There”, the stuttering rhythms of “Oslo”, and – my personal favorite – the stunning back and forth vocals of Kazu and Amedeo transitioned with small orchestral swells on “Black Guitar”.
The album sounds mysterious, but for fans of Blonde Redhead it may feel a bit too familiar. Expecting an evolution step as big as some of their previous albums could prove to wield some disappointment. It’s a conflicting feeling however and overall forgivable. While it may have been nice to hear some major progression since their previous album 3 years ago, it’s also hard to complain about truly refining an already interesting and unique sonic space into a tighter corner and exploring its depths. After all, this is their tightest album musically.
This album highlights some of the best parts of the band and delivers to their usual high standard to fans. This album should not be missed, and there’s not a better time to discover this band for those not yet initiated.