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Blonde Redhead - 23

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Artist: Blonde Redhead

Album: 23

Label: 4AD

Review date: Apr. 17, 2007

Times and styles change. When it comes to bands, the inevitable debate is over whether stasis equals stagnation or change is synonymous with selling out. When addressing Blonde Redhead's seventh album, cryptically entitled 23, it's tempting to frame the discussion in terms of the band's evolution since their rough-edged beginnings. Having moved away from their early -- and overt -- Sonic Youth worship, the band's current sound makes their association with the 4AD label more and more apropos.

From the start, the album's title track shows a density and guitar-driven texture that, coupled with Kazu Makino's breathy vocals and Simone Pace's propulsively steady drums, channels My Bloody Valentine far more clearly than any of the No Wave scenesters who seemed to be Blonde Redhead's original inspirations. Amedeo Pace's and Makino's guitars swoop and fill the air like the twin ghosts of Kevin Shields, all body with no sharp edges remaining.

Some may mutter that 23 has too bright a sheen to it, and likely point to the involvement of producer Alan Moulder. Certainly, there are hints of Smashing Pumpkins and U2-style production here, but ultimately, it doesn't matter: it's the songs that matter. The orchestral style of tracks like "Dr. Strangeluv" and "Publisher" benefit from the album's overall lushness. The former even toys with convention enough to include playful percussion like vibraslap and cowbell. Makino's vocals are pretty, but "Publisher" takes things even further, in a darker vein. Piano and a deep field of guitars over tick-tock drums support emotional singing from Amedeo, and when the guitars and voices sweep upwards together, joined in an eternal minor key, the results are gorgeous and majestic.

Elsewhere, the balance shifts back and forth from pop to melancholy, but rarely too far in either direction. "Silently" may be the sole exception, lying solidly on the pop side of the tracks, and while still drenched in the crushed velvet atmospheres of reverb and synth sonics, the chirpy vocals are startling. If not for the minor-key inflection and the distant reverb-coated drum hits, the song could be a Go-Go's B-side. As an antidote, "SW" is reminiscent of Black Heart Procession, with a driving rhythm supporting piano and guitar with passionate vocals from Amedeo. When it breaks into, of all things, a Beatles-esque horn section during the chorus, the surprise is that it works perfectly.

The last few songs lose the momentum established earlier, unfortunately, and lack the memorable density and authority of the first two-thirds of the album. It's as if the songs were played in order and the band simply ran out of steam; the energy of songs like "Spring And By Summer Fall" and "23" is noticeably lacking, and the excitement simply isn't there.

When the energy is present, 23 is a strong, pleasant album that connects a number of dots in a way that belongs almost exclusively to Blonde Redhead. And there are a half-dozen songs here that will be on repeat around here this summer.

By Mason Jones

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