After some reading, a bit of research and lots of listening, it’s still near impossible to work out where exactly Blonde Redhead fit in. They seem to be on the margins of scenes or one of those bands that, because their music isn’t easily definable, crop up in new and obscure genres to which only about four other artists belong. “No-wave” and “dream-pop” are the two pigeonholes that get thrown around the most but it’s no easy task; Blonde Redhead are a little bit of lots of things all at once. The dream pop label is the easiest to comprehend: Blonde Redhead take many influences from the shoegaze movement of the early ‘90s and the marriage of these pockets of inspiration with the indecipherable lyrics/female voice as instrument ethos of the Cocteau Twins make Blonde Redhead a more intriguing proposition than they may seem in theory.
This characteristic of being hard to define probably suits Blonde Redhead down to the ground. Graduates of the New York underground, the band members’ history draws in places as diverse as Milan, Montréal, Boston and Japan. Listening to Penny Sparkle, the band’s eighth full-length album and third for 4AD, you do get the impression of a band without fixed roots. There’s a feeling of unease and restlessness, a brooding hard-to-define sensation, like a deeper, more intense version of the displacement and jetlag alluded to in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Penny Sparkle straddles the line between comfort and tension, the woozy synths bleed into one another, the music is warm and enveloping but frequent, unexpected minor chords and bass rumbles mean you can never be as comfortable as you’d wish to be.
Penny Sparkle isn’t a particularly easy listen at first, but this needn’t be seen as disparaging. Blonde Redhead’s use of textures and layers is very subtle, and means that what could easily be dismissed as background music becomes more rewarding the more time and attention you give it. Think of yourself as a squirrel and Penny Sparkle as your store of acorns for the winter months. While most album’s charms are immediate and obvious, Penny Sparkle reveals its gifts gradually, meaning that there should be more the enough to keep you fulfilled during the hibernation period.
What’s most striking - and refreshing - about Penny Sparkle is that it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s an album that works better as a whole, and moreover, a whole that’s listened to in sequence; each track is the natural choice to follow its predecessor.
The guitars, electronics and vocals Blonde Redhead employ melt into an embracing mélange of sound. Opener, Here Sometimes, is understated and gentle, and the keyboards have a human-like, analogue feel to them. The transition after the chorus isn’t smooth, and the wonkiness of it adds to the human aspect of the track. It feels like the more sedate moments of Portishead’s Third (most notably, The Rip) and is just as immersive.
Subsequent tracks mostly build on the theme established from the first moment. Not Getting There utilises a low-level buzzing to build a sense of growing urgency, an undercurrent of burbling synths transforms Love or Prison, and Everything is Wrong relates its feeling of yearning and desperation through heartbeat drums and 12/8 time.
While the high points of Penny Sparkle are numerous, the sparseness and the re-treading of familiar ground can become slightly wearing occasionally. On more than one occasion, songs are prone to extended periods of lulling, and only the curios of odd sound effects or a daring chord change sustain your interest.
To some extent, Penny Sparkle feels more like a novel than an album. The cinematic sound and creating of instability means that you genuinely want to find out what happens next. Throughout its ten tracks, the off-kilter anxiety is ratcheted up and truly deserves a fitting climax that resolves all that has gone before. However, it doesn’t get it, as final track Spain is just more of the same. Perhaps mindful of the role this track could play, Blonde Redhead try their damnedest: there’s more atmosphere, more drama, more dynamics, but unfortunately it’s just more of the same. Penny Sparkle is certainly an interesting album, but more an album to appreciate rather than enjoy. It’s just such a shame it promises so much before lamely petering out.