The last time we heard from Blonde Redhead, they were slowly embracing high gloss production values on 23 to less than stellar effect by some critics’ measure. The trio continues on that track on their latest effort, Penny Sparkle. With incredibly precise and sharp production, Penny Sparkle is their most pop-friendly album yet. Reminiscent of New Romantic bands of the ’80s, this album is a stunning effort, if potentially divisive.
As with 23, Penny Sparkle favors wispy washes of synths and breathy, ethereal vocals that weave together to create a deeply romantic mood. In researching for this review, I stumbled upon several articles that pointed to the band’s disinterest in making songs with “specific ideas or messages,” instead favoring tracks that evoke particular moods and dreams. This claim is rather dubious since conjuring a mood or atmosphere with a song is, in a way, aiming for a specific idea. On that note, I can hardly see how Penny Sparkle could be faulted for making tracks that are aimless. Rather the songs here are incredibly evocative of torment, wistfulness, and, for lack of a better descriptor, a dreamy floatiness. Songs like “My Plants Are Dead” and “Everything is Wrong” are shimmering studies of melancholy yet are remarkably poppy. “My Plants Are Dead” in particular, beautifully utilizes a simple pop beat, with Interpol-like guitars. Hazy and sensual, it fits right in with the likes of Mazzy Star and Beach House.
Opening with “Here Sometimes,” Penny Sparkle distinguishes itself from early Blonde Redhead albums. With percussion reminiscent of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” (seriously), the track has a pop sheen that is almost shocking – how did this no wave band that Steve Shelley once signed get to this place? But after a few listens, Kazu Makino’s voice starts to sound perfectly at home with synth breaks right out of a The Knife song. Makino’s voice takes on a slinky air, easily slipping in and out of the beats and ambient washes of sound. Better still is “Not Getting There” with a guitar riff that sounds straight off of Depeche Mode’s Violator. Eerily reminiscent of new wave and current Swedish pop, “Not Getting There” is a moody dance song, perfect for the darkest of dance halls.
Penny Sparkle is certainly a departure from their previous work, but ever since Misery is a Butterfly, Blonde Redhead have been moving toward a more polished sound; the gloss of Penny Sparkle doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Previous effort 23 already had fans divided, and while I certainly can understand the sentiment that their sound has gotten progressively more “commercial,” that doesn’t detract the fact that these songs are good. While writing this review, I happily listened to the album over and over again, clicking repeat for “My Plants Are Dead,” “Here Sometimes,” “Oslo” and “Penny Sparkle.” Highlighting Makino’s ethereal vocals with Swedish pop and new wave influences, Penny Sparkle is an album that is incredibly enjoyable to listen to and one that stays under your skin.
MP3: “Here Sometimes” (with e-mail address)