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23
by Blonde Redhead
4AD (2007)
23
I’ll admit from the get-go that I’ve been vaguely aware of Blonde Redhead for a few years now. FYI, that’s an apology for a delayed reaction, not a defense of “I was there first” indie-rock cred. My friend Jason had mentioned them in passing during my junior year of college (’04-’05), and so I duly downloaded (legally, I think) the title track from their then-current album, Misery is a Butterfly. After proceeding to slowly digest the subdued percussion and instrumentation of brothers Simone N. and Amedeo F. Pace and the wispy vocals and airy melodies of Kazu Makino, I left Blonde Redhead by the wayside. “Misery is a Butterfly” being all well and good, it just didn’t catch.

On a whim, I thought that I’d give the New York-based threesome another go-around, this time with their seventh studio album, the numerically named 23.

You have my apologies again, as I’m not about to provide some sort of stunned testimonial of how excited I am to have finally experienced a Blonde Redhead album in its entirety. Honestly, my reaction to 23 is decidedly mixed. Given, there is a lot to love about Blonde Redhead: Kazu’s soft-spoken, near-whispered vocals are both haunting and charming, as is the dreamy atmosphere that emanates from Simone’s jazzy, brass-centric rhythms and Amedeo and Kazu’s spacious-yet-arresting melodies. Theirs is a mish-mash of bright percussion and moody keys, of palpitating bass lines (here, courtesy of Skúli Sverrisson) and affected guitars ringing back and forth beneath various auditory textures that, simply stated, call to mind the respective works of Radiohead and Sonic Youth.

Simpler still: ambient noise married to dance-friendly pop beats.

All the same, 23 feels a bit… hollow… on first listen. Underwhelming, even. I blame this in no small part on the aesthetic of near-incomprehensibility that informs all of Kazu’s vocals, mumbled and syntactically gaffed as they are, which is further compounded by Blonde Redhead’s omission of a lyric sheet to compliment the otherwise-grand packaging for 23 (nice colour palette, really). This is but a small frustration, and easily remedied by their website’s lyrics page, but it is a near-fatal error if you intend to enjoy 23 on a thematic level without staring at a computer screen.

Amedeo’s turns at the mic are quite a different story, as his own vocal idiom is strangely reminiscent of Coldplay crooner Chris Martin (if Chris Martin were, in turn, strangely reminiscent of Thom Yorke). I wish that I were off-base with that dilution-comparison, but Amedeo’s vocal work on tracks like the French horn-aided “SW,” droning “Spring and by Summer Fall,” and beat-oriented “Publisher” would indicate otherwise.

Album-wise, 23 is hardly a poor showing from a band with as much restrained talent as Blonde Redhead. Title track, album opener, and video-single “23” cannot fail to grab your attention with its percussive rhythms and damnably pretty vocals, the former keeping you well-grounded to the shuffling dance floor while the latter flits and flutters just beyond your grasp (comprehensibly and otherwise).

“Dr. Strangeluv”—or, how I learned to stop nitpicking and enjoy the album—plays off of a grainy guitar melody with hints of cowbell and rumbling bass, all in support of Kazu’s romantic musings. Ditto for the bass and guitar interplay of “The Dress” and “Silently,” which, taken with the electronic-infused twinkle of “Top Ranking,” comprises the creamy pop-rock center of 23.

But pop does not necessarily mean thoughtlessness, as the electronically-enhanced “Heroine” attests. Though nevertheless approachable, “Heroine” takes a literary turn to reflect upon feelings of abandonment from the perspective of the wife of Gallic folk hero, Roland. Or, just the left-behind girlfriend of some random guy named Roland, but I like to think it’s the former.

Album ender “My Impure Hair” kicks back a bit with folksy acoustic guitar, staid percussion, and vague accordion accents, though it is by no means lacking in the ambience department. Cue the spacey drones, whirls, and hums, and it’s the same ol’ Blonde Redhead shtick of noise-enhanced pop.

The problem, then, is that this sense of familiarity is not necessarily a universally good thing. For all of its charm, the sameness and “yet again” consistency of Blonde Redhead’s 23 can very easily be mistaken for monotony, as even the best tracks on the album fail to stand out enough to stick with you in the long run.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (May 26th, 2007)

Tags: audio, review, blonde redhead, 23, 4ad


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