Album Review: Blonde Redhead – Penny Sparkle

Blonde Redhead – Penny Sparkle
4AD: 2010

Blonde Redhead is all grown up.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. A band matures and finds its footing, more sure than ever. The fire of their youths relocates to a much more mellow age 45 and, while they’re not exactly bouncing around the stage and smashing guitars anymore, they have at least harnessed that boundless energy into strong, fully-realized, contemplative songwriting. Like a fine wine, they only get better with age.

Other times, it’s not so good. They age and morph into something bloated, wrinkled, out-of-touch, and, terrifyingly enough–boring. The same passion they once used to, you know, “make the magic happen” in the bedroom (read: the studio) is no longer there. They need special medication for their lack of libidos, and unfortunately, it doesn’t work as consistently as they’d like.

Unfortunately for Blonde Redhead, comprised of NYC-based Italian twins Simone and Amedeo Pace and the Japanese waif Kazu Makino, they lean more toward the latter on Penny Sparkle their latest effort. If you’re hearing Blonde Redhead for the first time via Penny Sparkle, you’ll likely find it difficult to believe that this band began as heirs to “jangly guitar” period Sonic Youth. On Fake Can Be Just as Good, they piled on the unintelligible lyrics, punk energy, and out-of-tune guitars–the epitome of disgruntled art school grads. They certainly got Sonic Youth’s attention, as well as fellow art punk and Fugazi member Guy Picciotto, who produced their next album, In an Expression of the Inexpressible. Picciotto stuck around for the next three full-length albums, and as the albums progressed, so did the band’s sound: the art punks morphed into sophisticated adults, writing tight, somber-sounding pop songs. By the time the band released 23, they were drawing the mature, NPR-listening 40+ crowd. This shift in demographic made sense: the Pace twins were only getting grayer and the wrinkles around Kazu’s eyes weren’t going to stop deepening.

23 explored new textures and revisited old sounds, but one thing was certain: this was a band finally sure of itself. They didn’t sound like a Sonic Youth cover band anymore–they sounded like Blonde Redhead, and no other band sounded quite like them. They knew what they wanted, and they got it in spades. Penny Sparkle takes a giant leap backwards from this contagious and admirable self-assuredness that is so desperately needed in modern indie music. In 2010, the year of all the insecure indie darlings who waste entire albums ripping off other bands, this was the year for Blonde Redhead to re-assert their status as one of indie’s most innovative, confident, and exemplary bands. Instead, Penny Sparkle is a wasted opportunity–it merely shows a band that just settles too comfortably in their old age instead of using their seniority to drive things forward as they have with their previous releases.

Several years ago, upon the release of Misery Is a Butterfly, a journalist asked assistant bandleader Amedeo Pace why there weren’t any guitars on the record. “The guitars are there,” he insisted defiantly, seemingly insulted by the question. Of course, to Amedeo’s credit, there were guitars, but the interviewer was onto something, too–the band was moving away from guitarwork and going for a more holistic sound. For Misery, this meant increased use of string arrangements, and on 23, it meant incorporating electronics (see “The Dress”). Penny Sparkle carries on that apparent “less guitarwork is best” motto and relies on electronics and keys. The result is something so subdued and one-dimensional that, paired with the near-exclusive use of Kazu Makino’s vocals, it begins to sound like a Makino solo side project. The previous three albums got their vitality from their diversity. Electronics and keys could coexist with heavier guitar songs, and they could enhance and inform each other–see “The Dress” and “Spring and by Summer Fall” on 23. Here, there’s none of that; just a bleepy-bloopy dreamworld that seems to merely exist in Makino’s own addled mind. If the band is operating under their usual law of “he/she who writes the songs can sing the songs,” then Amedeo Pace contributed virtually zilch to this album (with the exception of the equally drowsy “Will There Be Stars”). Poor Simone Pace, Amedeo’s twin brother and the band’s drummer, isn’t even able to demonstrate his wonderful sense of dynamism that abounds on other records. On this album, he’s only given mind-numbingly simple and completely monotonous drum beats—when he gets any at all.

Moody, tear-inducing music is always a good idea, but these tears shouldn’t be tears of boredom. Other musicians have proven that sad, slow music can be extremely creative and exciting–hell, even Blonde Redhead has demonstrated that. The closest this band gets to pushing themselves forward on Penny Sparkle is the pensive, yet driving track, “Not Getting There”, which, oddly enough, is a title that would be more apt for the other songs on the album, all of which dwell on one repetitive, dull idea and never move past it. “Here Sometimes” is the only song that takes these same meandering, electronic ideas and manifests them into something interesting, using a formula for texture-building that’s reminiscent of recent albums.

Blonde Redhead can’t be accused of not trying new things on Penny Sparkle, because they certainly do. Electronics are more pervasive than ever here, even if the band doesn’t employ them in most effective way. It’s entirely possible that after working on the Dungeons & Dragons documentary soundtrack, the band just had a craving for atmospheric film scores that move at an iceberg’s pace. After this completely unproductive, yawn-provoking offering from this formerly inspiring trio, there’s the question of whether Blonde Redhead can thrive in today’s music scene and write exciting standout songs, or if they’re going to permanently lose their luster like old pennies, forever dimming and gathering lint in the pockets of 40-somethings. Prove us wrong next time, guys.

2.5 out of 5

2 thoughts on “Album Review: Blonde Redhead – Penny Sparkle

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  1. Those who say Blonde Redhead have changed or that they’re becoming boring are completely full of it and just duplicating what other reviews have said prior to their own review. Blonde Redhead have never had their albums sound the same, they carry through several elements which are noticeable if you pay attention and give the songs a moment but they have never done the same thing for each album. Kazu has mentioned that they always look for something new to do rather than go back to what they originally put out. Penny Sparkle has a more confident yet still anxious sound to it, in my opinion it captures feeling much more than their other albums and is more relatable to the listener. This album is definitely not boring if you take the time to listen to it.

  2. Damn. Stinks to hear that this one, well, stinks.

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