As the press push for Blonde Redhead‘s Penny Sparkle began this past July, the trio’s elusive frontwoman Kazu Makino gave us a glance behind the curtain in characteristically obtuse fashion, remarking, “I can’t say what Penny Sparkle is about just yet. I remember talking to Ed (from 4AD) one day and telling him that I had a vision that I was traveling to far away places to complete it. [Then] I landed in snowy slippery Stockholm [and] fell in love with the music like falling for someone you’ve known for a long time. It was dreamy and sometimes was very stormy. At times I felt like a shepherd who was trying to herd five stallions into a yard (unsuccessfully).” Her inability to tame the Brothers Pace and production duo Van Rivers and The Subliminal Kid (Fever Ray, Glasser) was perhaps understandable: Despite its deliberate evolution on each previous album — a habit kept up since 1995 — Penny Sparkle marks Blonde Redhead’s most dramatic shift yet, a record that eschews organic instrumentation for synthesizers and drum machines on a near-total scale. Penny Sparkle is a dense, textural affair that Makino likely knew would be lost on a portion of the band’s post-punk die-hards, and perhaps the shift initially evaded her, too. Regardless, the band emerged from Scandinavia with a fantastic document of their modern electronic taste, a record that, while not their best work, serves as a rewarding continuation of the band’s trademark pop elegance, sensuality, and otherworldliness.
Mixed once again by Alan Moulder (Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine), Penny Sparkle‘s production is about as rich as it comes: The beats are hynoptic and ever-evolving; the guitars (when used) translate into ghostly, spaghetti-stringed melodies that’ve been nearly washed away in digital reverb; and Makino’s voice sounds as soft and haunted as ever, at times recalling BjÃ¶rk at her more subdued. The synths, for their part, provide the bulk of the melodic architecture throughout, primarily coming together in binary pulses both intricate and enveloping, reminding us how tasteful the band can be with regards to tone and composition.
The new elements hurt more than they help, though, as they have the tendency to sound lifeless and redundant, like hearing your favorite legacy artist subtly become a genre chameleon because he or she’s out of fresh ideas. To be sure, Penny Sparkle is definitively Blonde Redhead — no other band today evokes this much bleak intimacy so casually — it’s just that the synthetic production sounds too derivative of Fever Ray, The Knife or The xx, as if they walked into the studio with Silent Shout and quaintly said, “We want to sound like this.” The suggestion that this trio (in particular) would intentionally lift the aesthetic of another artist is, of course, ridiculous, and that’s not what they’ve done here. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight a certain underlying letting down of the guard that pervades the record’s slick veneer.
But, let’s be honest: Unless you’re an audiophile yourself, this deviation is going to be negligible against the simple joy of owning 10 new Blonde Redhead songs. In that sense, the trio’s fans should be very happy — Penny Sparkle is a collection of odd, dreamy, experimental pop gems that are not short on seduction and mystique, the very qualities that endear most listeners to the band. Opener “Here Sometimes,” the album’s first single, immediately reveals the aesthetic shift as a brooding beat runs up against fuzzy, pulsing synths, electronic modulations, and Makino’s silky vocals, which remain transcendent and blue. Earlier iterations of The Cure can be heard in the rare, single-note dominant melodies of “My Plants Are Dead”, “Love or Prison” and “Black Guitar”, the penultimate track that features Amedeo Pace and Makino sharing vocal duties to eerie effect. The strongest cut here has to be “Oslo,” which, besides having a sinister chorus that’s been swirling about my head all day, toys with dub and IDM rhythms that could presage where the trio is headed next.
If anything, Penny Sparkle suffers from the spectacular taste of its writers percolating to the surface a bit more than it has in records past. The influences of Fugazi, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine were hinted at before, but the band had nevertheless sounded remarkably their own, perhaps no more so than on 2004′s Misery is a Butterfly. The new effort has all the melodic and aesthetic trademarks of classic Blonde Redhead — more than that, “Here Sometimes”, “Oslo”, and “Spain” are some of the best songs the band has ever written — but the comprehensive result feels more like a lateral pass than a leap forward. The style has changed to be certain, but in a way that feels too familiar, especially considering the cultural salience that bands like The xx have had in recent years. Like Radiohead’s slight misstep Hail to the Thief, though, Penny Sparkle will be worn out by Blonde Redhead fans new and old alike, a noble exercise to pass the time until Makino and the Brothers Pace hopefully rediscover how to tweak their sound without diminishing their voice.