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Blonde Redhead - Penny Sparkle

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Artist: Blonde Redhead

Album: Penny Sparkle

Label: 4AD

Review date: Sep. 15, 2010

On a first glance and listen, Penny Sparkle‘s peppy name and candy-coated cover art might seem ill suited for its music. The sound of Kazu Makino and the Pace brothers has always been moody, and Penny Sparkle is no exception. Visual cues to the contrary, twee or power pop this is not.

Yet Blonde Redhead did achieve a mainstream breakthrough with its previous album, 23, and on Penny Sparkle, the trio continues its drift toward accessibility. Perhaps the sickly-sweet graphics gracing the covers of 23 and Penny Sparkle are a bit too appropriate: an overcompensation meant to run ahead of (and even mock) the band’s would-be descent from objects of underground cult reverence to fleeting fashionable embrace. The busier designs of earlier albums did match with sometimes dissonant, sharp-edged sounds and the pop cleanliness of the two most recent covers has corresponded to Blonde Redhead’s transition into dreamily-safe distortion and other spacey sounds no more jarring than sitcom-ready “indie” will allow. (This is no mere figure of speech: multiple cuts from 23 landed on both television programs and advertisements.)

Still, in many ways Penny Sparkle marks as much of break from 23 as that album did from the artily jarring alternative rock of the band’s earlier periods before it. Blonde Redhead has not just stopped the channeling of My Bloody Valentine and House of Love it tried on 23 — it has all but given up “rocking,” period. Penny Sparkle finds the outfit riffing somewhere between The XX and the bass-grooved trip hop of say, Portishead, sans any gaudy DJ-ing inflections. The record sticks closely to a formula of atmospheric, sway-paced music that’s sometimes similar to — though a few shades more danceable than — Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. Throughout, Makino’s purring vocals are at their most ethereal, topping off the overall impression of a dance-club slowed to a lover’s haze.

The album’s highlights are surely the (relatively) more energetic tracks. The slinky, low-end groove of opener “Here Sometimes,” for instance, is a worthy, though lesser, impression of The Knife’s “Heartbeats.” Better still, “My Plants Are Dead” is a tidy echo chamber harboring a punishing drumbeat and a faint but eminently hummable countermelody from off in the distance. On the similarly effective “Love or Prison,” Makino sings slowly over a simple drum pattern layered with double-timed synth blips, treating the oft-repeated refrain “Is this love, or prison?” less as a question and more as the bittersweet nothing of a sensual trance. These few standouts aside, Penny Sparkle is, above all, a mood piece. Each recording drifts into the next seamlessly, making effective interstitial filling out of tracks that would sound a bit lifeless in isolation.

Blonde Redhead has come a long way from its origins. It is now years and several aesthetics away from the band that took its name from a no wave song and grew up in the tradition of Sonic Youth. Certainly fans of the Blonde Redhead of old may damn Penny Sparkle with faint praise. Yet if Penny Sparkle veers a bit too close to Blonde Redhead meets Sade, it is mostly pleasant, and not for all of us is that word an epithet.

By Benjamin Ewing

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