Blonde Redhead – Penny Sparkle (4AD/Rhythmethod) CD Review

One frustrating fact about reviewing albums in 2011 is that it’s physically impossible to listen to everything. Way back in ’79, when I was first on that endless record company conveyer belt of perishable musical product, it really felt possible to soak it all up; there just weren’t that many releases back then.

This is my excuse for never having heard Blonde Redhead before this album. Or not remembering having heard them, in any case. It seems that I’ve discovered the band just as they head into murky waters, betraying their original musical vision, and reaping the first negative reviews of their reasonably long career.

Well, I liked Penny Sparkle. For starters, I liked the way it sounds. Mixed by Depeche Mode guy Alan Moulder, it’s thrillingly deep, with a sparkling top end.

Penny Sparkle is a dream-pop confection, and in its combination of pop and dance/electronic forms, it’s not too far removed from NZ sensation The Naked & Famous. Except that it’s not infused with new wave and Nine Inch Nails influences. Instead, there’s a lovely minimalism about Blonde Redhead’s new direction that is redolent of the shoegazing textures of earlier 4AD groups like the Cocteau Twins, and like that group, most of the tracks are quite slow, with a big drum sound.

The Cocteaus comparisons end there, however; Penny Sparkle has none of the textural guitar-work of that group, opting for a very synth-heavy sound that does, I admit, occasionally cast them in a slightly Euro-dance light. Well, anything programmed in a certain way and using certain analogue synths is going to have that effect.

Groups can’t always go down the road their fans and critics expect of them. Perhaps Blonde Redhead’s best work is behind them, but if it’s better than Penny Sparkle, I’ve definitely got to check it out. GARY STEEL

Sound = 4/5

Music = 4/5

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