It’s heartening for fans of adventurous pop to notice that some formerly underground names are recently catching a lot of buzz. Groups like Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire are fast proving that one can be beloved by indiedom and maintain an experimental style while making a stab at storming the charts. Avant rockers Blonde Redhead (Kazu Makino, Amadeo Pace, and Simone Pace) have been performing together since 1993. On 23, their seventh full length release, they too manage to maintain their musical integrity, while at the same time crafting songs that would seem designed to broaden the band’s appeal.
The CD’s title track is an excellent case in point. “23” is filled with multi-tracked polyphony, sumptuously sung by Makino, and an arrangement that sits astride dream pop and shoegaze styles — both ambitiously layered approaches to constructing songs — while remaining eminently memorable. Makino has reined in her vocal approach on this release; while abundant energy and dramatic heft are evident when she sings, she has abandoned some of the yawping, primal fury of previous efforts (notably Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons). Instead, Makino demonstrates a greater sense of control and propensity toward lyricism, which leads to a welcome broadening of her expressive palette. “Dr. Strangeluv” is equally tuneful — organ drones mix with lush gales of guitar over undulating and varied percussion to create groove-driven art rock.
“The Dress” incorporates a wide range of synthesized electronics — copious elsewhere on the release as well — which serves as an effective foil for the band’s formerly guitar-heavy approach; guest bassist Skuli Sverisson contributes sturdy accompaniment to the track. “SW” continues in this electro-pop vein, even including a proggy synth solo. Thankfully, the proceedings are not allowed to drift toward a mid-album lull, buoyed by the snappy rocker “Spring and by Summer Fall”.
“Silently” features a thrumming dance hall beat and wonderfully varied harmonic progression over which Makino’s cooing vocals soar. Amedeo Pace lends his voice to the attractive hook of “Publisher”, a lovingly arranged avant ambient song. This delectable number is followed by the mysterious ballad “Heroine”, a track on which the band experiments with vocoder manipulation as Makino’s lines arch toward the stratosphere. This is contrasted by the almost shockingly spare “Top Ranking”, a track populated by subtle percussion and unadorned strummed guitars. The CD closes with a dreamy denouement, the undulating ballad “My Impure Hair”.
23 is one of Blonde Redhead’s strongest efforts to date, containing far more in the way of memorable melodies and songwriting subtleties than the band has previously exhibited. While diehard fans may bemoan the album’s comparative restraint, keeping some power in reserve has allowed the group to explore new textures in an appealing and authentic way. Hopefully, they may bring in a few new listeners, especially ones who will be willing to stick around should the group head back towards more unambiguously avant-garde terrain.