[2 September 2014]
Oh how the mighty have fallen. Blonde Redhead is best known for their dream pop masterwork, 2007’s 23, but followed up that album with 2010’s Penny Sparkle, a record that drew some mixed reviews at best, and outright derision in some quarters, for abandoning its guitars in favor of keyboard textures and sparseness. So, now, almost exactly four years after Penny Sparkle took its bow, we see Blonde Redhead going back to the drawing board to create an utterly barren album in Barragán. Expecting the same sonic squall of 23 all over again? You’re going to walk away very, very, very disappointed. The songs on this album are airy and minimalist, and weave in and out of prog rock and Krautrock rhythms.
Barragán is not overtly accessible—it does take a few listens to warm up to it—but it’s so all over the map and light that it just feels like a palate cleansing exercise. To be entirely candid and honest, it’s hard to make heads or tails of this one. On one hand, you want to reward and applaud the fact that the group are not content to simply retread old glories. On the other hand, Barragán is quite scattershot: there’s no underlying thread that ties these songs together, and it feels as though the outfit simply took a bunch of tunes and threw them against a wall to see if they would stick or not. Certainly, it’s… different. Whether or not you find this appealing or not may just hinge on your personal relationship to the band, and how willing you are to embrace whatever path Blonde Redhead wants to journey down.
From a critical standpoint, though, the album works and doesn’t work in almost an equilibrium balance. Even though it’s short at two minutes and change, the title track is a lilting melody of birdsong, classical guitar and flute. Sure, the band is going down the Jethro Tull route here (and, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with Jethro Tull), but it works as a nice, effective intro to the muted themes of the record. However, it’s just too short. You think the rest of the album would follow in this stead, but what comes next in “Lady M” is a kind of trip-hop bang and clang. It’s affecting, sure, but it floats off into the ether. Instead of riding on vapor trails as their guitar heavy workouts in the past would, “Lady M” is the vapour trail.
“Dripping”, which is next, is pretty much in a similar vein, though it’s quite possibly the one moment on the LP that’s most destined to be played on the club floor. It’s debonair, and there’s a kind of flair to the track, but, again, it just comes across as being slight, just riding on a military beat and some garish keyboard washes. “Cat On Tin Roof” brings back the indie rock bass hook, but that’s all that the song has going for it: a repeated riff, an issue that rears its head later in the album with the nearly nine minute “Mind to Be Had”. In that song, there’s a woozy keyboard riff worthy of any Krautrock act, but almost nine minutes of basically the same figure repeated and played over and over and bashed upside your head? Too much.
“The One I Love” hearkens back to the title track, as it’s the kind of baroque folk that is pretty, but, by now, it becomes crystal clear that Barragán lacks any kind of clarity in direction. What album does the outfit want it to be? Dunno. “No More Honey” has a minimalistic slink to it, and while it’s okay, by this point you start wondering if Blonde Redhead has simply run out of ideas and are padding out the album. This feeling is amplified by the time you get to “Defeatist Anthem (Harry and I)”, which are three songs grafted together along with a sonic collage to make for a running time of more than six minutes. And it’s that back half of the song that’s a big WTF? It is just male vocals cooing against a classical guitar lick, and then transmutes into something bizarre with what appears to be a didgeridoo going on. And then the record turns relatively quiet at its close with “Penultimo” and “Seven Two”, as though Blonde Redhead’s tank is completely empty, which, in turns, deflates the balloon of this record.
“Prepare to fail” goes a line on “Penultimo” and it would seem that Blonde Redhead is ready to be held up on its own petard with this disc. Barragán is aimless and directionless, and it’s hard to see what the group is trying to really do here other than make music that somehow pleases itself. The problem is, you still have an audience and a back catalog, and there are certain expectations that people have when it comes to Blonde Redhead, largely based upon the strength of 23 and the band’s noise rock background. With this album, Blonde Redhead proves that it wants to junk its past and move towards the future, embracing an entirely new and Spartan style of music. That’s fine. People, and bands, change. But this doesn’t seem to congeal, and Barragán is again a band that is reinventing itself for the sake of reinvention.
The album does become more approachable the more that you listen to it, but that’s true of just about any record that doesn’t knock you upside the head with earworm licks on the first listen and then feel all too familiar on the second and third. Time might be the best measure of how Barragán works as a successful or unsuccessful record, and maybe four years from now our expectations of Blonde Redhead will have changed once again. However, you do have to wonder if the group has set them up for their own punch line, and it is this: a month or two from its release, you have to wonder if this album may be the sort of thing you see in the Barragán bin of your local record shop.