Over the past 10 years Blonde Redhead has demonstrated how a guitar band can age gracefully into adopting synths. Without appearing trend-conscious, the band has blended keyboards into its standard lineup of voice, guitar and drums. The process has been gradual and, for lack of a better term, organic. The once-raucous band began to explore a less-is-more approach in 1998’s In An Expression Of The Inexpressable, which naturally led to 2000’s understated Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons and its quiet inclusion of keyboards and loop-like riffs. 2004’s Misery Is A Butterfly and 2007’s 23 included songs that felt less like statements and more like reflections of moods. As such, strings, drum loops and fat, echoing chords began to fill out the body of the group’s music. Now on its eighth album, Blonde Redhead sounds less interested in making songs with specific ideas or messages and more interested in using voice, feeling and keys to conjure (in a paraphrase of singer and guitarist Kazu Makino’s words) storms and dreams.
At its best, Penny Sparkle conjures the band’s core stylistic strengths while applying new arrangements or tones. “Here Sometimes” has familiar Blonde Redhead elements — a simple up-and-down melody for Makino’s tightly wound voice and some subtle rhythmic touches from the light-handed Simone Pace — while swapping out guitars and effects for warm synthesizers and shimmering comps. “Oslo” similarly stays close to the harmonic structure of a past work, “Futurism v. Passeism Pt. 2,” but the dubby mix of blunted kicks, Moog-y bass accents and the distant din of guitars on the up beat and a whistling keyboard counter-melody pulls the song into an ambiguous, liminal space.
The band plays a little with song structure to conjure a similar effect. The waltzing “Everything Is Wrong” loops in a circular manner in seeming respect to the history of its time signature. Yet the song also drifts aimlessly as if to make its most memorable quality its pulse and texture. In these moments, the band sounds increasingly unclear in meaning and intent, but also refreshed and invigorated.
On other moments, though, the experiments do not suit the band. “Black Guitar” and “Spain” adhere to the album’s sense of floating between states but replaces many of the band’s best qualities with faceless synths and drum loops. Makino brings tender performances to each song, but the Pace brothers have both developed a remarkably subtle ability to support and flesh out a song on their respective instruments. Instead, they feel replaced, and the songs become anonymous. On the other hand, “Not Getting There” is filled with familiar ideas that sound out-of-place on the record. From the Vanity 6 “Nasty Girl” drums to the excessively Alan Moulder-ish low end (who otherwise does a fantastic job mixing his second Blonde Redhead album) none of the elements work in the band’s favor. It’s not a bad song — Depeche Mode with a conga player could have done this in the late ’90s. It just doesn’t work as either a song or a vibration for this band at this time.
That said, Penny Sparkle is a welcome addition to the group’s carefully curated discography. Longtime fans should be challenged to hear the band’s growth, while new listeners are implored to seek out past works for comparison.