There was a time in the not so distant past when every release from the seminal English label 4AD Records was a must have for music collectors. Each piece was a veritable treasure embodying a certain otherworldly transcendental spirit that reached from the artwork of Vaughn Oliver’s V23 design house to the mind-boggling creations from artists like the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and Throwing Muses. In an effort to recapture this winning formula, 4AD has ventured across the pond and snatched up cult artists like newcomer Cass McCoombs and longtime one-man band the Mountain Goats. The latest act to join the revitalization of 4AD is the New York-based art-rock trio Blonde Redhead with the release of their sixth full-length album, Misery Is a Butterfly. Keeping with the tradition of their new label, Blonde Redhead shirk off some of the angular guitar work that earned them extensive past comparisons to Sonic Youth in favor of a broader palette of sound. Layered behind the traditional rock band instrumentation (guitar, bass, and drums) is a textured wash of strings, horns, and keyboards that evokes a more cinematic and romantic landscape. The music that makes up the eleven songs on Misery Is a Butterfly owes less to the ghosts of CBGBs and more to the smoky blues-inspired trip-hop of acts like Portishead and Lamb.
Tracks like “Melody” and “Magic Mountain” capture a beatific innocence that perfectly illustrates the shift in Blonde Redhead’s musical vision. Fragile and pristine vocals haunt both tracks but that is where the similarity between these compositions ends. “Melody” is driven by gothic keyboards and a mid-tempo syncopated rhythm that hiccups along with the vocals to deliver an after-hours masterpiece for the chill out crowd. On the other hand, “Magic Mountain” takes a page from the playbook of Helium’s Mary Timony, utilizing the remembered sounds of music boxes and broken toys as the framework for a haunting collage.
The eloquence and power of this album is best felt on album opener “Elephant Woman”, which erupts in a chorus of maddening strings and a clavinet that never backs down. The verse swoons, the chorus moves, and the whole package is tied together by the stark but uncompromising vocals of Kazu Makino. More than any other, this song embodies the spirit of the new 4AD. It demonstrates a band blossoming beyond their previous trappings into a new and rare breed.
If there is any weakness to be found on Misery Is a Butterfly it would be the vocals of Amedeo Pace. While his guitar playing is essential to the success of this record, his vocal contributions to “Falling Man” and “Messenger” mar two otherwise excellent tracks. The type of half singing that he employed on earlier albums was passable for those more rock-based compositions, but with this foray into a more ambient style of music it only hampers the songs. “Messenger” features a wonderful piano melody that is unfortunately masked behind Pace’s grating vocals. In fact, the finer parts of this song are the breaks where Makino muses breathlessly in the background as the piano surges. The idea of having two vocalists is an intriguing one, but it is clear from these tracks that the current second vocalist is not adding to the overall enjoyment of this album.
The second coming of 4AD Records is a welcome one. With recent reunion plans for both the Pixies and Throwing Muses, nostalgia for the heyday of the label is sure to run high. Instead of solely succumbing to the potential commercial windfall that will accompany a Pixies world tour, the label has dug in and reinvented itself with a series of releases that appeal to both newcomers and longtime fans. Blonde Redhead’s history as a denizen of the New York music scene at first seemed like an odd match with 4AD’s ethos, but Misery is a Butterfly proves that the union is a natural fit. The expansion of their sound to include breathtaking strings and keyboards has proven to lift Blonde Redhead out of the post-rock mire and recreated them as a band finally worthy of their past praise.