While the transformation of Blonde Redhead's style from hot-and-bothered art-punk to cool electro-pop isn't exactly a surprising development, it's still startling to hear how measured, downbeat, and chilled-out Penny Sparkle is.
Depending on your perspective, Blonde Redhead's current incarnation on Penny Sparkle is either the end result of a slow, steady evolution, or the last kiss goodbye to what got the group to this point in the first place. While the transformation of Blonde Redhead's style from hot-and-bothered art-punk to cool electro-pop isn't exactly a surprising development considering the direction that the NYC trio has been heading since leaving Touch and Go for 4AD, it's still startling to hear how measured, downbeat, and chilled-out Penny Sparkle is. Chalk it up to artistic growth or self-absorbed navel-gazing, but Blonde Redhead sounds like a band that has become a little too good at what it does for its own sake.
What's most conspicuous about Penny Sparkle is what's missing, namely those blasts of raw, unbridled noise play that mussed up Blonde Redhead's boutique-rock pretensions: Whereas the group once balanced the tension between gritty and pretty, grime and shine, with intuitive feel and expert skill, Penny Sparkle's polished, gleaming aesthetic has pretty much refined the messy and abrasive parts of the band's sound out of existence, while taking off a lot of the edge to Blonde Redhead in the process. With even lingering hints of Amedeo Pace's unruly guitar stabs and Kazu Makino's madwoman vocals all but smoothed over on Penny Sparkle, Blonde Redhead's art-scarred no-wave revivalism has morphed into lush synth-pop that incorporates goth mood and shoegaze-lite fuzz. But there's definitely something lost in this trade-off, since the new album's emphasis on atmospherics comes at the expense of the spontaneity, force, and sensory overload that had always perked up ears. So while the threesome once seemed imposing and alluring because the threat of some serious sonic damage was carried out, Blonde Redhead creates a sinister feeling this time around that's all-encompassing and pervasive rather than intense.
In the case of Penny Sparkle, context is the key as to why the sum of the album doesn't end up greater than its parts. Each of the 10 tracks is carefully sculpted and stands up well on its own, but, in combination, they form a record that becomes overbearing because the blacked-out moods and hazy arrangements barely ever lift, and not enough when they do. Penny Sparkle does start promisingly with two painstakingly crafted pieces that play off one another to set an appropriately dark and stylish tone, though perhaps still a little too subtly. The slow-burning synth-and-drums arrangement on the opening number "Here Sometimes" does its job of drawing you in through the mysterious vibe it emanates, giving you the feeling that you've walked in on some kind of secret. Makino's almost whispered vocals work their black magic and add to the impressionistic effect here, like when she croons, "This is me, completely me", slyly and enigmatically. Providing just enough contrast, the nearly up-tempo "Not Getting There" lets loose a little and gradually turns up the simmering energy, with a trace of Pace's guitar pushing the song and adding some depth.
However, the title "Not Getting There" proves to be somewhat prophetic in describing what follows it, since Blonde Redhead doesn't really build on the suggestive teases of the opening tracks. Coming on their heels are "Will There Be Stars" and "My Plants Are Dead", both of which dial things back to generate more or less the same kind of electronics-driven tech-noir soundscape. So even when "My Plants Are Dead" begins to climb ever so slowly to a crescendo, it's too gradual to register much textural difference, all the more perplexing since this was once a band that could thrash it out with the best of 'em. Lacking enough changes in pace and mood through Penny Sparkle, there's nothing to help draw out and accentuate the finer details in relief without the louder, discordant interjections that Blonde Redhead once used to full effect to accentuate the fragile beauty of its more contemplative moods.
In short, the quiet, atmospheric elements don't have as much to play off of as they did on previous Blonde Redhead outings. By the time Penny Sparkle peaks in the middle with high points like the trip-hoppish "Love or Prison" and the dark, dubby "Oslo", they sound too samey to stand out like they could and should. In and of themselves, both songs do reveal their own wonders, like the swaths of minor-chord background noise on "Love or Prison" and Simone Pace's intricate rhythms on "Oslo", but all the nuances get lost when the music is completely made up of understated moves and meticulous strokes. As a result, the sense of mystery evoked on Penny Sparkle feels more cryptic and obscure than dramatic, with not enough bracing twists and turns to keep the record moving. Only on "Everything Is Wrong" do the dynamics reach for something approximating the frenzied state Blonde Redhead once found itself in with regularity. But eight tracks into an album is a bit late to throw in a change-up.
Still, it's hard not to respect and admire Blonde Redhead for continuing to perfect a sound and approach that had worked so well -- and probably better -- before. Wherever your verdict on Penny Sparkle falls, the album goes to show that even a band with such a strong, distinctive identity can still be a work-in-progress that keeps on striving for bigger, better things, even if they're not there. That in itself is something of a tribute to Blonde Redhead that Penny Sparkle leaves behind.