Sparse but Sparkling
Seventeen years and eight albums into their career, Blonde Redhead don’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon, nor do they seem content to stick with established formulas. After switching from droning on their earliest records, to dreary on Misery is a Butterfly, to dreamy with 2007’s swoon-worthy, 4AD debut 23, Kazu Makino and brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace have returned to turn the last remaining stone: electro-pop. The trio take what could be a jarring transition on Penny Sparkle and sell it with surprising, impressive smoothness.
At least part of the credit goes to Swedish production duo Vans River and the Subliminal Kid, who worked with The Knife’s Karin Dreijer-Andersson on her transcendent 2009 debut as Fever Ray. Like that record, they recorded Sparkle with Blonde Redhead in Stockholm, giving it the same feeling of vastness and claustrophobia, simultaneously inviting and foreboding. Makino and the brothers Pace have always thrived in those environs even at their most guitar heavy. Strip most of those guitars way in favor of synths and the results are even sparser, but no less spellbinding.
It’s all laid out with opener and lead single “Here Sometimes.” Its skeletal pulse, ominously thick synth throb and hissing sound effects would sound just as appropriate sung by Karin Dreijer-Andersson, but Kazu’s archetypal alien delivery give the song a softer, sweeter touch. These components combine with wonderfully wistful lyrics to become a haunting, hypnotic peak in not just this album, but the band’s entire discography.
Other highlights mine similar ground. “Love or Prison” is a low-key epic that coasts atop subtly sprawling keyboard and guitar arpeggios that could easily stretch the song to twice its running time. “Oslo” has a sullen synth swing and trip-hopping beat making it a perfect and worthy candidate for blog remixes (Makino even seems to pace and space her vocals for easy chopping) and closer “Spain” bubbles and bristles with beautifully brooding melancholy. The Paces’ vocal turns can prove equally arresting, particularly on the languid love song “Black Guitar,” a fine duet with Makino.
Not all of the tracks are as striking as these, with a few meandering dangerously close to Hooverphonic territory. That said, like the Blonde Redhead albums before it, Penny Sparkle boasts remarkable consistency. Taken as a whole, even the weaker tracks (of which, again, there are but few) work in service of the whole to woo and ultimately wow the listener. It’s refreshing to see a band with this much experience behind them (even fellow indie stalwarts like Spoon and Yo La Tengo settled on a formula long ago) continue to push themselves and their sound, particularly when the results are as successful as they are here.