Blonde Redhead

Misery is a Butterfly

(4AD; 2004)

By Amir Nezar | 6 April 2004

Lumière, the charming French candlestick of Beauty and the Beast, said famously: "If it's not Baroque, don't fix it!" There was a reason that I loved Lumière in my younger days, and it was precisely because of wisdom like that. Let us look at the Baroque signs that just bleed from Blonde Redhead's latest Misery is a Butterfly, after a long hiatus since 2000's Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons.

First, the title, of rather Baroque foreboding -- uh, yeah, sure, misery is a butterfly. Makes sense to me. Does it make sense to you? OK, it makes no fucking sense at all beyond an impossible ambiguity that nonetheless portends some ominous gravitas. Both are delicate things? Sure, but the title is heavy-handed, no?

Second, the deadly-seriousness of the entire album. Kazu Makino, ethereal lead vocalist, trades off between intense aural anguish and ghostly, serene torment. Amadeo Pace, sharer of vocal duties on more occasions than you'd like, and player of delicate guitar lines, approximates a tortured street urchin.

Third, the presence of harpsichord, organ, big strings, and heavy, atmospheric synth tones, isn't a mood-lightener. And off-key wails. Nothing to brighten the day like undead-ish wails.

Fourth, lyrics: "No one leaves magic mountain," "Cross my heart, hope to live," etc. Song titles like "Equally Damaged" and "For the Damaged."

All of this would be pretty damningly melodramatic, and it is, but Blonde Redhead escape pure mocking vitriol thanks to their occasionally pretty hooks (which help counter their overbearing atmosphere, though they never overcome it) and their occasionally impressive song dynamics. And hey, when it comes down to it, you won't mistake Blonde Redhead for Sonic Youth (there's no comparison skill-wise -- Sonic Youth would shit these guys out into a toilet after bad sushi), an accusation they've been trying to evade for some time. The band's sound is now very much their own.

The results of this finally-appropriated sound aren't mixed; they fall between somewhat effective and somewhat uneffective, with a high point or two. "Elephant Woman" trots along with a harpsichord wavering in the background, swelling strings, a reliable if uninventive bass line, and Makino's oddly appealing, sometimes cracking vocals whispering in and out, and Pace's guitar line oscillating back and forth between barely-there chords. The wishy-washy tune is occasionally pierced by a diving violin, and suffers from a lack of a memorable hook, relying on simple keyboarding and guitar lines for the length of its tenuous course before fading out without the slightest impact.

"Melody," takes on light, Sigur Rós post-rock overtones, supported by a couple frail synth-tone hooks and its noodling, ethereally present guitar. For its ambling pace, the track doesn't do enough to capture your interest, despite its late-entering, funereally repeating guitar hook.

"Doll Is Mine" is the only real album highlight, beginning with a promising, elastic bass line, delicate chord configurations, and Makino's vocals, which trace the guitar line for its chorus hook. The song is equal parts brooding inventiveness and punkish attitude, and the dichotomy underlines the effectiveness of those relatively rare points where Blonde Redhead bring striking dynamic shifts to make their music interesting. It barely avoids overextending its ideas as it slides in under the four-minute mark.

But on too many occasions the group simply slides into over-reliance on Makino's vocals, their lush atmosphere, and only-moderately successful spare melodies. "Maddening Cloud," with its wraith-like organ tones and gentle keyboard lines, has neither propulsive percussion nor complex guitar-playing to balance out its boredom-inducing quiet repetition.

There is one overbearing, ever-present flaw in the album: its nearly uniform, repetitive pace, which becomes exhausting on close listen, and discourages repeated listens because it hammers in the band's few ideas over and over again before each track peters out. Smaller flaws like Pace's irritating vocals don't help matters, and the abused strings that show up too often end up being just background ornamentation for the sake of lushness rather than significant musical ingredients.

For taking almost four years to come out with this effort, Blonde Redhead come off as unmotivated, sapped, and not particularly eager to make good on the small promise of Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. Lumière was certainly right: if it's not Baroque don't fix it. But Blonde Redhead is certainly baroque, almost uniformly uninteresting, and certainly in need of some fixing. For their sake, I hope it doesn't take another four years.