The reverberating chime of piano that opens the title track to Blonde Redhead’s 23 sounds, at first, like a remnant of the melodramatic chamber-gaze of Misery Is a Butterfly. The open space between the notes sustains the tension, as one might expect strings and atmospheric synths to fill the gap. Instead, an intense rush of drums and effects-laden guitar charges through, telling the listener, almost instantly, that the band is ready to rock once again.
Blonde Redhead’s previous two full-lengths, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons and the aforementioned Misery, respectively, took their abrasive, curious rock toward a much less conventional approach, eventually adding more lush arrangements and evolving further into a sophisticated pop group, at times resembling Portishead, at others Serge Gainsbourg, and ultra-gloom Cure at others still. With 23, however, the band simplifies their sound for a streamlined, energetic, yet still mysterious and magical effect. Many of the strings and other bells and whistles have been largely scaled back in favor of a comparatively straightforward guitar/keyboard/drums sound, “comparatively” being the watchword. It’s not in the group’s nature to do anything totally straightforward.
Retaining much of the mystique that characterized Misery, 23 entices and allures on different terms, slinking in a little black dress rather than smiling behind an ornate disguise at a masquerade ball. Both records are quite impressive, but 23 has a more direct feel, the fast-paced title track being the earliest and most potent evidence of that. There’s still a sense of Misery‘s heartbreaking beauty, particularly when Kazu Makino coos “23 seconds, all things we love will die.” But Makino’s tragic dreaminess gives way to some Kevin Shields-like guitar work from Amedeo Pace, and a super catchy “la la la la la la.” “Dr. Strangeluv” doesn’t hit with as much of an impact, but its atmospheric beauty is no less captivating, a rich layer of synths filling the song with a gauzy sonic fog.
“The Dress” has no relation to PJ Harvey’s “Dress,” and might even be something of a yin to that song’s yang, descending into a melancholy spiral rather than outrightly rocking out. Amedeo takes the lead on a pair of songs right in the middle of the album, his vocal presence a much rarer phenomenon here than on the band’s last couple of outings. On the heavily plodding “SW,” Pace eerily incants “it’s not who you kill, but it’s who you left…it’s not how you speak, but it’s what you said.” Horns adorn the song’s bridge, lightening up the otherwise dense and chilling atmosphere momentarily. The track that immediately follows, “Spring and By Summer Fall,” shoots forth with more of a guitar-heavy rock sound, still dreamy and dense, but propulsive and, quite frankly, awesome.
The second half of the album isn’t as viscerally intense, as the nigh girl group melody of “Silently” starts off the latter portion, Makino singing a nautically-themed love ode with lyrics like “I wish to sail into your port.” “Publisher,” the only other track featuring lead vocals by Amedeo, is a slower track, but still heavy with effects and synths, building up into a heavier and epic track during the chorus. “Heroine” finds the group experimenting with vocoders, while “Top Ranking” has a playfully energetic sound, fuzzy organ harmonies swirling around simple basslines and some kind of odd hiccupping sound, offsetting the darker lyrics (“they will burn down your house“). The album ends with “My Impure Hair,” a slower, simpler, almost country-sounding track and a pretty one at that, still thick with effects and trippy studio tricks.
When compared to Misery Is a Butterfly or Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, 23 sounds very much like the same band, just one attempting a similar style of songwriting with very different production and instrumentation. Blonde Redhead is on a hell of a streak, and their pace only quickens with each release.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.