Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Penny Sparkle - Blonde Redhead (SCQ's Winter 2011)

Penny Sparkle

Blonde Redhead
4AD Records.

SCQ Rating: 81%

Of the multiple reasons Blonde Redhead’s Ottawa Bluesfest concert might spring to mind often, its therapeutic way of momentarily overlooking winter’s cruel wrath ranks somewhere around last. Sure, July’s dusk was an hour off, the sun was cresting over the river and a friend and I had just staked an ideal waterside plot of long-grass to drink beers and watch the band’s hazy set amid, but Penny Sparkle really doesn’t commiserate any of that. In fact, the very nature of Penny Sparkle amidst even the most AC-abused of summers feels slightly wrong.

As fragile as frost being thumbed from your windowpane, Penny Sparkle’s aesthetic elicits shivers at every turn. Arrangements focus on tight-lipped electronic beats that fizzle around intricate percussion and synths that, refreshingly, sound futuristic. Its production, courtesy of Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid (the duo behind Fever Ray’s debut), invites icicles to grow upon such sparse terrain, and cloaks the band’s eighth LP in pale, delicate atmospheres. The strong-willed production-work no doubt has ramifications on Blonde Redhead’s songwriting but they’re of the ambiguous sort, more likely to reflect well due to the divide in opinions than suffer from them. And these songs are indeed flexible: the dubbed-out traces of ‘Will There Be Stars’ benefit from their far-off insinuations, as surely as a lurching bass keeps ‘Oslo’ lucid and wandering. Seldom does a song on Penny Sparkle permit instantly recognizable hooks, but ‘Here Sometimes’ and ‘Everything Is Wrong’, as exceptions to the rule, bolster the set from its introverted daydream. The rest are constituted of miniscule hooks in conjunction for a greater, album-crossing groove.

In a sleepy tapestry where even Kazu Makino’s vocals feel sidelined for gentle cooing, the downside becomes evident: such strict adherence to Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid’s production encourages its homogeny. How one translates the threat of sameness will also decide its outcome; the record’s few overlong meditations, ‘Love Or Prison’ and the title track, survive on distant dance-rhythms that will appeal to electronic enthusiasts but likely outrage fans still clamoring for a return of Blonde Redhead’s noisy roots. For better or worse, Penny Sparkle isn’t an album to motivate action; it’s an album to collapse to, to drift in and out of conscious to, and to occasionally forget is even playing.

Funny, that soothing indifference to grab-me dynamics is about the only connection these songs have to that warm evening concert, in that our experience benefited from letting Blonde Redhead’s sly compositions sneak to the background. Penny Sparkle definitely has an escapist’s allure to it, and their liner-note on the CD sleeve (“Your Other World (Dream) Is Inside Here”) should be taken as an exciting forewarning.

Blonde Redhead-My Plants Are Dead by ellebirdie

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