Blonde Redhead


(4AD; 2007)

By Craig Eley | 27 April 2007

As a listener and a writer, I'm always looking for the source. That sound, what is making it? That band, who influenced them? That voice, who is singing it? All three of these questions are raised so explicitly by a new Blonde Redhead album that to not address them would be irresponsible. So let's just dive right in with the answer to that first one: a whole bunch of layers of guitars, synthesizers, percussion and vocal tracks, in this particular case assembled by producer Alan Moulder. But really, this album seems to be filled, almost overflowing, with good-old-fashioned not-post-anything songwriting. There are genuine Songs in here, with melodies and choruses and the whole bit, and they sound gorgeous. While some will likely see this as a step backward or an unfulfilled promise, the band is using some of their more dissonant desires and creative energies to supplement rather than create the music. It's still style over substance in a lot of cases, but it manages to be so exciting while being so listenable that I think it demands repeated listens -- even if those are at cocktail parties.

"Silently" is the perfect example of the kind of songcraft Blonde Redhead show on this album. At its core it's an updated teen prom ballad, structured around an arpeggio guitar riff and simple beat. But this rhythmic simplicity is brilliantly masked by the competing percussive techniques throughout the song: tambourines, high-hats, synth hand claps, Phil Collins toms, shakers, drum machine patterns, and woodblock, just to name the ones I can discern. The arpeggio guitar is eventually obscured by synth chord washes and more guitars, while even Kazu Makino's voice is covered in blankets of itself. Throughout all this, remarkably but unsurprisingly, it is that voice which remains the star -- but that's for another paragraph.

For the answer to my second question, the one about influences, you need to ride that no-wave all the way back to your sonic youth, look around downtown New York and then call your best friend. She'll know the answer. I'm being smug here, but the DNA nomenclature is handled adequately on AMG, and Blonde Redhead continue to sound less and less like something with any connection to No New York (1978). While "The Dress" is ostensibly about a lover, it could also be read as an address to those who would be critical of the band for all the showy production that they have draped all over themselves. Makino sings, "People hate you when you're changing / Don't let the dress trick you." This is, indeed, another change, but boy that dress looks nice on you.

What's most interesting is question three--that voice, who made it? It's the one that plagues me the most, since on this densely layered and almost ridiculously atmospheric album, it is the voices that remain the most important, listen after listen. I think there are a few different reasons for that, and the first reason might be my own racism--the same racism that I see in the eyes of slack-jawed fifteen year-olds at Deerhoof concerts and slack-jawed twentysomethings at Asobi Seksu ones. Makino's voice is ethereal, sensitive and alluring, sure, but it is also a voice of attraction and repression. It strikes me that the band may imagine her voice in the same way, in resisting the temptation to use it on every single song while at the same time using it as a Band-Aid to disguise the otherwise lameness of some of the tracks. The production on "Heroine" distorts and toys with the voice in a way that undermines some its strongest characteristics, while "Top Ranking" is just too self-consciously cute, even if it is (ahem) catchy and lovely. So yeah, Makino's voice is "ethereal" and "hypnotic" as hell--but sometimes the band mismanages it.

Amadeo Pace's singing, on the other hand, is so painfully affected and derivative that it threatens to sabotage the album, and critics of it on previous outtakes will certainly take a perverse pleasure in its excesses here. "SW" showcases Pace at his worse, channeling Thom Yorke in all the wrong ways. The song isn't helped by its own melodramatic piano and insistent rhythm (Coldplay by way of Spoon, in some respects), though it's specifically the forced nature of the vocals that makes them so irritating. If Makino is effortless and too beautiful for this world, Pace has all the elegance of a shuttle launch, forcing his tenor into the stratosphere by brute force. Pace's voice replaces magic with science, otherworldliness with physical reality. I can't decide if him being a man has anything to do with it, but his voice utterly refuses to be alluring. Thankfully, everything else on this album is designed to draw us in to a place where source and sound are woven into an invisible fabric that drapes and tickles the ears. This is a plush and dense material that becomes even more alluring when you ask yourself what precisely the hell is so alluring about it.