Perhaps if I had listened to Blonde Redhead back in 1995 when they released their self-titled debut, high school would have been a different experience for me. Instead of revering Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, perhaps (in fact, I could probably guarantee) I would have focused all my love and attention to this wonderfully amazing trio (originally a quartet before bassist Maki Takahashi left). But because I had virtually no musical direction back in those vastly depressed days when I was surrounded by suburbanites who thought band tees and flannel shirts were revolutionary, I missed out on hours of emotionally stunning music. And for that I am deeply regretful.
Recently though, I got curious about the band after they failed to appear at this year’s Coney Island’s annual Siren Music Festival. My friend had been building them up, and I was looking forward to seeing them. But apparently, lead singer Kazu Makino suffered an equestrian accident and was unable to perform. This worried my friend Anna who loves them. Will Makino ever be able to sing again?
Unable to wait and see if Makino will heal and perform again, I went out and bought the band’s entire discography. Crazy? Maybe. But I had a good hunch that the investment would pay off, and it did. And so I easily became obsessed with the band made up with members to whom English was a second language (Makino is originally from Japan and twin brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace are native Italians).
As the story goes, the group was named after a song by an ‘80s New York City band called DNA. They are also often compared to Sonic Youth, perhaps partly because Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley released their debut on his label Smells Like Records. I can see how the comparisons to the legendary no-wave band can be made, but to me, Sonic Youth is less accessible in their over-the-edge experimentation (i.e., A Thousand Leaves and Daydream Nation). In contrast, Blonde Redhead over the years has been consistent in the kind of music they produce. They are in tune with their listeners because they are in tune with what kind of music they want to create. Their music is inexplicable only in the sense that it’s mind-blowing a band can birth such beguiling tracks album after album.
With all that said, let’s talk about my favorite Blonde Redhead album: Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. The group’s 2000 release sucked me into its codeine-like haze, and I was forever in love with Makino’s singular, ethereal voice and the band’s infectious keyboard, guitar, and bass rhythms. Their moody music was like nothing I’ve heard, and a refreshing change from the energized careless rock of late. They are not about drinking beer, partying all night long, and wearing certain “indie rock” fashions.
But they are about music, and the way music can drastically affect people’s perceptions of the world. This attitude shows up in their music, especially in songs like “Equally Damaged”, the first track on Melody. The first song, a 40-second instrumental, sounds like a bird sweetly chirping. The song is a great lead-in to the second track “In Particular”, which changes the mood slightly with a lament of love, hurt, music, and life:
“Lying on my back. I heard music. Felt unsure and catastrophic. Had to tell myself it’s only music. It blows my mind. But it’s like that. Is anyone there? What can you tell me? Afraid of what? Would you ever know? Everyone else is really boring. Anyone else won’t be good enough. Someplace safe I would imagine. Someone new would be so cruel. Incurable paranoiac. Hysterical depression”.
The song reminds of times when one first wakes up in the morning, the sun is shining through the blinds onto your face and you have nothing on your mind. But as you begin to lie in bed, thoughts and worries start seeping into your brain, and inevitably they overtake the quiet beginning of your day, and you are left an overload of thoughts.
In half of the songs, Amedeo’s more grounded vocals balance out Makino’s whispery singing. But I have to admit that while I think Amedeo’s songs are just as great musically, I am more drawn to songs featuring Makino. Perhaps the appeal lies in the fact that I’ve never heard anything quite like her voice, and she can do things with lyrics with her unique sound. She makes words come alive with feeling. She’s opening up, and you are grateful that she’s shared her emotions with you. Her songs feel like eyes brimming with tears, but not quite crying. She’s teetering on the brink of sadness, but steadily trying to prevent a complete breakdown like in the song “Hated Because of Great Qualities”:
“You were sorry that I was alone. So sorry that you run away. Putting it on me but you already knew it. It never meant a thing. So be it. I can’t understand this at all. I can’t pronounce this at all. These are different matters. These are uncertain feelings. These should never be discussed here. So keep it to yourself”.
But then there is the realization that you can’t always keep your feelings so controlled and bottled up. In the appropriately last song “Mother”, Makino loses her cool and let’s all her frustrations out. You can’t really make out what she’s screaming amidst the high-paced drumming, but whatever it is, it seems to be therapeutic because the song then launches into “For the Damaged Coda”—a continuation of the track previous to “Mother”. A perfect sense of closure and relief consumes me during Makino’s long hums of “ah” in the coda.
In the end, I was a damaged lemon in need of healing, and Blonde Redhead’s album offered me an empathetic treatment for my sadness. What a release.
// Notes from the Road
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