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Blonde Redhead - Misery is a Butterfly

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Artist: Blonde Redhead

Album: Misery is a Butterfly

Label: 4AD

Review date: Feb. 22, 2004

Misery is a Butterfly is Blonde Redhead's follow-up to the melancholy pop of Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, and it's yet another step away from Blonde Redhead's noise-rock roots. It would be tempting to view Misery as Blonde Redhead's second step in some sort of maturation process, another album of minor-key chord progressions and lyrics that are romantic mostly because past generations of singer/songwriters have written similar lyrics that are considered romantic.

The trouble with this view is that Blonde Redhead's music has always exhibited these characteristics. Revisionist history time: you've probably heard that Blonde Redhead's early records were art-school Sonic Youth knockoffs. Wrong! Sure, there was a lot of noise in Blonde Redhead's early years (particularly in their excellent self-titled first album), but there were also lovely melodies and logical, minor- and diminished-chord progressions that Sonic Youth could never have written. Blonde Redhead's open-ended, jazzy rhythms on their first two records and the complex, precise post-punk charge on their next two were also far more elegant than Sonic Youth's plodding beats.

Most of what you need to know about Misery can be guessed from a glimpse at the record's spine – Blonde Redhead has left the jagged-edged indie-rock label Touch and Go for 4AD, a label best known for the soupy atmospheric rock of the Pale Saints, Cocteau Twins and early Lush (let's forget about the Pixies and the Breeders for a second). Blonde Redhead's first four albums featured nice chord progressions, but the band's sound was given shape by its sophisticated rhythmic sense and its noisy eccentricities. Now those features are gone, and Blonde Redhead has turned to mush.

Simone Pace was once one of rock's most interesting drummers; here he's basically a metronome, much in the way Scott Plouf suddenly became boring after leaving the Spinanes for Built To Spill. As a result, the songs often sound flat – they're driven by rhythms that don't command the listener's attention, and the songs rarely get louder or softer.

The traditionally 4AD-style production doesn't help matters – the guitars, especially, sound distant. This in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing: 4AD production works well with groups who have a 4AD-style sound. But Blonde Redhead doesn't have the swirling, dense textures of early Lush or the Cocteau Twins, unless you count the pointless layers of strings that smother half the songs here.

A lot of people are still going to like this album because the lyrics, melodies and chord progressions here are among Blonde Redhead's best yet. The title track is fantastic, with a colorful lyric ("Remember when we found Misery? / We watched her spread her wings / And slowly, slowly fly around our room / And she asked for your gentle mind"), a number of unexpected chord changes, and a wistful, understated vocal performance by guitarist Kazu Makino. Unfortunately, it suffers from all the problems listed above, and it could be even better with a more direct sound and more dramatic use of dynamics.

Blonde Redhead haven't run out of ideas, but Misery strips them of their eccentricities so thoroughly that the few that remain sound out of place. Guitarist Amadeo Pace's singing is as strained as it's ever been, which just sounds curious now that Blonde Redhead's other hard edges have been sanded down. It's fine when pop bands make pop records, but Blonde Redhead aren't the sort of band that can just stop being strange. Noisy weirdness and Misery's romantic melodicism are not mutually exclusive, as the band's earlier albums have proven. And in Blonde Redhead's case, they probably shouldn't be.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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