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Music Review: Blonde Redhead – Penny Sparkle

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I will never forget the first time I heard Blonde Redhead. It was their 1997 masterpiece, Fake Can Be Just As Good. The low-key introduction to “Kazuality” gave no warning of the auditory assault that followed. A wall of wailing, discordant guitars, alternative tuning and a relentless, driving beat left me hooked.  It was noisy, loud and fabulous and it was easy to see why reviewers could not resist the temptation to compare New York trio Blonde Redhead to the kings of No Wave and disaffected rock, Sonic Youth.

I immediately bought the group’s back catalogue and kept a close eye on Blonde Redhead over the course of the next thirteen years. Over the years, the band maintained their edgy, guitar-driven sound but seemed to mature somewhat when they moved to 4AD with their 2004 album, Misery Is a Butterfly.

Blonde Redhead returned in 2010 with Penny Sparkle, and I can scarcely recall a time when an album has left me so divided . It is certainly their most accessible album to date, and the opening track “Here Sometimes” is melodic. But these are words I never thought I’d use to describe a Blonde Redhead album. When I first heard Blonde Redhead, I took to thrashing about my apartment listening to it and I recommended it to everybody I could possibly think of.  Penny Sparkle does not inspire those feelings in me.

Perhaps I should mention at this point that I never bought their last album, 23, because it seemed like too much of a departure in style.  Blonde Redhead had adopted a decidedly dream pop sound, and this is evident again on “Not Getting There”, the second track on Penny Sparkle, which would fit perfectly on a Lush album. I’m a fan of dream pop but I like my noise to be be noise, and my initial feeling on listening to this album was of disappointment.

The task remains then to separate this album from Blonde Redhead’s previous works and to move on. The album still features the distinctive vocals of Kazu Makino and Amedeo Pace, but the band seems to have ditched instruments entirely in favour of synthesizers and programming. 

The band journeyed between Stockholm and New York whilst recording Penny Sparkle, and this seems to have resulted in the starker, cleaner sound.  The album does pick up somewhat towards the end with “Oslo” and “Black Guitar”, but “Spain” was the only track on the album that I liked enough to play on repeat.

I have to conclude that Penny Sparkle is too different, too far removed from the mayhem and cacophony of Blonde Redhead’s former sound for it to earn a comfortable position amongst my other Blonde Redhead discs.  I understand that the band has redefined their sound and settled on a new musical direction but as I mentioned previously, an album has rarely left me this divided.

I would recommend this album for fans of minimalist, alternative, electronic music.  Fans of The Knife or The xx may like Makino and Pace’s vocals and the synth sounds.  However, fans of Blonde Redhead’s earlier catalogue should proceed with caution and give the album a good listen before going ahead and purchasing it. 

I’m going to refrain from giving the album a star-rating on this occasion, as I intend to listen to it repeatedly until I grow to like it.  Such is my dedication to this band that was once one of my very favorites.

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About Mandy Southgate

Mandy Southgate is a blogger, serial expat and eternal tourist living and working in London. Aside from writing at Blogcritics, she blogs about travel and London at Emm in London, entertainment and media at Addicted to Media and war crimes, genocide and social justice over at A Passion to Understand. Mandy has continued to write for Blogcritics under the new profile Mandy Southgate.