Blonde Redhead Albums From Worst To Best
If you Google “Kazu Makino interview,” the first thing that pops up is a YouTube video of the Blonde Redhead guitarist-singer talking about how she doubts her own existence. “I often have a hard time feeling like I’m alive,” Makino says. “I often feel a little bit detached or quite separated from everything else around, so whatever makes me feel alive, that’s important to me. I think that’s one of the reason I play music … certain moments you feel really alive.”
If you’ve ever seen the band, which also includes twin brothers Amedeo (guitar/vocals) and Simone (drums) Pace, then you know their live show are anything but pallid — Makino and Amedeo, who are an item, riff off of each like two magnets of the same polarity being forced toward one another, wobbling back and forth, fighting to stay together, while Simone, somehow both stoic and savage at the same time time, methodically beats the fucking life out of his drum kit. It’s a teeth-gnashing performance, even when they’re performing their softer material, and makes you feel like you’re living in a universe they’ve conceived.
The band’s origin story is seemingly almost too precious to be real: Two Japanese female art students (Makino and former bassist Maki Takahashi) meet Italian gourmand twins while living in New York City and form noisey art rock band that gary release two LPs (Takahashi is already gone for the second) that catapult them into their own indie stardom. But it’s not just the SY co-sign, or how meticulously and stylishly dressed each member of the trio is, it’s that they are constantly evolving their sound, which remains a definition-defying version of guttural. While working with Shelley, it means driving noise-rock with breathless shrieks and insane guitar harmonies. In the next stage of their career, they sign to Touch & Go and work with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, who unearths their ability to create even more focused grit.
Throughout that time, the band’s music had only hinted at certain emotions. Within the catalogue, Makino and Amedeo have written reciprocal love songs, but most of the band’s output is full of lyrical abstraction or nods to other out-there endeavors, like the work of Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose work included a film called Salò, which is the cinematic interpretation of the Marquis De Sade’s 120 Days Of Sodom. It wasn’t until the band moved labels again, this time with 4AD (where they are currently signed) that “guttural” meant showing your insides. That first record was Misery Is A Butterfly, an album that was recorded after Makino had suffered severe facial injuries after being thrown off of and subsequently trampled by a horse. The band had already been experimenting with toning it down on the electronic-heavy Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons, but it was after the tragedy that their sound took a hard turn toward stripped-down.
That constant stride to change will make up the heft of this examination of the band’s work. “Heft” is a great word to use when talking about Blonde Redhead because, on top of their eight studio full-lengths, the band often releases a companion EP or 7″ with an album, has participated in benefit records like Dark Was The Night and Makino’s own post-tsunami Japan benefit compilation We Are The Works In Progress, as well as crafted the score for Kevin McAlester’s 2008 documentary The Dungeon Masters. We’re only going to look at those eight proper albums, but some of those one-offs, like the “Vague”/”Jetstar” 7″ or Melody’s primarily French and Italian EP Melodie Citronique are some of their best work. The group has not put out an album since 2011, but even so, they will be headlining Quebec’s FME Festival at the end of August and Bloomslang Festival in Lexington, KY in September. Theirs is the kind of music that can make you feel alive.
8. Penny Sparkle (2011)
The interim between the release of Penny Sparkle and its catalogue predecessor 23 saw Blonde Redhead foray into making film music. Songbird Makino lent vocals to a soundtrack for a remake of Brian DePalma's satanic Sisters, and the trio scored D&D documentary The Dungeon Masters. One of the band's greatest gifts is their ability to dredge beauty from the darkest corners, so these new endeavors were an excellent slant on their existing output. The first bud from Penny Sparkle popped up on Record Store Day 2010, when 4AD released a 12" of song sketches called Fragments From Work In Progress. The LP, which was essentially a sketchbook committed to wax, boasted single-track demos from Blonde Redhead, Gang Gang Dance, and other signees. Blonde Redhead's contribution was the thin beginnings of "Not Getting There," a fuller version of which would appear on Penny Sparkle. There's horror-flick ephemera imbued into the album, but it is, unfortunately, their only full-length that fails to engage throughout its entire playing time. Hypnotic synths on album opener "Here Sometimes" weave you into the album and "Not Getting There" in its final state is like an industrial track stripped of its stark black paint and replaced with, well, sparkle. It's a fine start, but doesn't deliver the trademark punch they'd so-far delivered throughout their catalogue. Standouts include "Olso," which is crafted with the same sonic recipe as "Getting There," although with rounder synths and bass, as well as "Everything Is Wrong," on which they hit closest to their signature sound. It's an unfortunate title, really.
7. 23 (2007)
What could have been a messy fling outside of their comfort zone, the Blonde Redhead's first effort for 4AD saw them seamlessly infuse their sound with an influence of shoegaze. We're introduced to genre-marriage with the eponymous first track and, while it appears throughout, it's done best with "Spring And By Summer Fall," "Dr. Strangeluv," and "Publisher." While it's not an experiment gone awry, where 23 suffers is its ending. Penultimate cut "Top Ranking" is a signature BRH closer, as it veers just slightly out of the lane they've been cruising the entirety of the album to leave the listener with a new thing to ponder. Its final track "My Impure Hair" also delivers, but its weird take on folk is too far gone and almost dismantles the entire package.
6. Blonde Redhead (1995)
Blonde Redhead truly harnessed their strength when they became a three-piece, but their self-titled debut (with then-bassist Maki Takahashi) is still a model statement about the band's sonic texture and ethos. There's the ferocious and kinetic ("Mama Cita"), the shriek-punctuated billowing clouds of sound ("Astro Boy"), and the tangoing guitar riffs ("Swing Pool"). But the best laid plans for delivering the BRH prototype come at the beginning and end, opening with menace that converts into a raucous noisy art-rock duet ("I Don't Want U") and closing with calming minimalism ("Girl Boy"). It's a sound that holds up, and one they continued to build upon.
5. In An Expression Of The Inexpressible (1998)
Blonde Redhead's penchant for opening albums with immediacy is one of their trademarks and is most deftly displayed on this album. But not only is "Luv Machine" a sucker-punch of Makino's urgent yelps and Simone's whirlpool of percussion, it's the perfect announcement that after three albums, mostly self-produced, the band was now delivering their take on Downtown NYC art- and noise-rock with a finer polish. A lot of that comes from enlisting Fugazi's Guy Picciotto as producer (he would serve the same role on the next two albums, as well). Picciotto's touch not only found the band testing new waters – carnival riffs on "10," a benzo-addled take on classic rock with "Led Zep," and chrome-finished revamp of their previous album's closer "Futurism Vs. Passéism," albeit shirking its instrumental origins and putting a French poem-reciting Picciotto on vocal duty. His work with the band lured them out of their comfort zone, but there is a consistent undercurrent of Fugazi's sound throughout the record. While it was a bit more adventurous than what the trio had been putting out, it still begs for their evolution to be via their own aesthetic palette. Fortunately, the rest of their work with Guy worked out that way.
4. Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons (2000)
Like 23, Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons was Blonde Redhead's first real masquerade ball. The crossover album finds them tinkering with synths and minimalism ("In Particular," "Ballad Of Lemons"), maintaining a stronghold on Picciotto's influence ("Melody Of Certain Three"), and holding fast to their penchant for post-punk screamers ("Mother"). The album is imbued with an overarching sense of love: a collaborator they've coalesced with and a willingness to bend their sound in another direction, but one that has a lot of glittering elements to it. But the real heart-swelling moment comes from "This Is Not." Makino and Amedeo's romantic relationship is not a band secret and it gives them a palpable chemistry during their live performances, but you can hear it in her voice with this song. Lyrically straightforward, she describes the silver linings of a failed courtship in a love letter to both Pace twins: "She left everything/ traveled to the other side of the world … a series of meaningless movements/ And then by chance she met/ You and your brother/ The moment she saw you/ She knew you were made for her." It would be the album's most beautiful moment were it not for end-haunter "For The Damaged Coda" – ghostly piano keys trickle until there's nothing. A spooky thing to leave an audience with before a long, upsetting hiatus.
3. La Mia Vita Violenta (1995)
It starts with a rally-call: Album-opener "I Am Taking Out My Eurotrash (I Still Get Rocks Off)" is perhaps the band's most straightforward rock cut – bellowing drums, rhythmic riffs, chugging bass (supplied by Enon's Toko Yasuda) – yet is the undeniable proof that the band does standard issue with the burnish of a punk from outer space. Makino coos and wails with intermittent vocal support from Amedeo, bolstering the complement of her fragile voice to the buttery richness of his. And Simone delivers one of their most lulling drum beats while still smashing the utter shit out of his kit. It's unfuckwithable. Elsewhere they experiment with sitar on the goosebump-inducing "Harmony," deal with complicated romance and death wishes on the nuanced "Violent Life," and deliver visceral short cuts with "I Am There While You Choke On Me" and "Young Neil." The band was still new at the time, and even though they were still under the tutelage of Shelley at Smells Like Records, the self-produced album is a marker for what is classically, but uniquely, Blonde Redhead.
2. Fake Can Be Just As Good (1997)
In 1997, the trio signed to Chicago label Touch & Go and subsequently released their most New York-sounding album, Fake Can Be Just As Good. With Unwound's Vern Rumsey stepping in on bass duties, the record is a hypnotic feedback storm. From its yelping opener, Amedeo's love song to Makino "Kazuality," to swirling swamp "Bipolar" to spitfire "Oh James," the album rarely ceases to stomp. Even the brittle "Ego Maniac Kid" morphs out of its church-bell origins and crunches into itself. And then there's original rendition "Futurism vs. Passéism," a riff-based debate that launches into interstellar post-punk, weaving long bouts of feedback with technical stringwork. This dichotomy surely helped to entice Guy Picciotto to work with the band.
1. Misery Is A Butterfly (2004)
If you dropped the needle down too hard on a vinyl copy of Misery Is A Butterfly, the songs might break. The album is the sonic version of a porcelain doll, and its origin story comes with the same kind of fragility. Perhaps discounting certain bits of Melody, up to this point, Blonde Redhead's catalogue is wholly visceral. Here, however, their epicureanism becomes much more delicate – restrained beauty, stilted climaxes, embedded with a heartbreaking story about being betrayed by your favorite thing. In 2003, Makino was thrown off of a horse and trampled underneath it. The injuries she suffered were monumental. Half of her face was disfigured, the hoof slamming far enough in to make an impression on her brain, and she required a complete facial reconstruction. Adding to the tragedy, she needed to relearn how to sing. Following her recovery, the band produced an album that opens with an eerie lullaby, "Elephant Woman." While it's not explicit, the song poetically recounts the accident and, no doubt, the title is in reference to the tale of disfigurement The Elephant Man. It gives horror a gorgeous sheen and the album continues to ascend with cascading euphoria – Makino's voice soars over haunting keys on "Melody" and the title track; Amedeo delivers warped riffs and porcelain-punk with "Falling Man"; and together on "Pink Love," they lure out the album's most romantic landscape: swirling and sumptuous, breathy and bass-heavy, and when Makino sings, "storms of petals are pouring down," you can actually conjure the blooms. It would still be an exquisite record if it ended with the cut's soft fade-out, but its concluding track, "Equus," is what makes this Blonde Redhead's greatest musical achievement. The song is the total opposite of "Elephant Woman," a thumping laudation to the animal who got us here in the first place. It's also Guy Picciotto's swan song as BRH's producer, and he pushes them to deliver a song that doesn't quite fit in a damask-print wallpaper-covered room like the rest of the album, the synergy of his signature bite and Butterfly's haunted house whimsy. The lyrics yearn for the equine, Makino's pinning almost kicking you in the gut. Call it Stockholm Syndrome or a healthy expurgation of past hurt, but whatever it is, it's the perfect cap on the finest collection of music the band has ever made.