Even as dirty garage-punk has boomed in every warehouse party in Brooklyn, indie has also been developing its exquisite beautiful side. Acts like Grizzly Bear (QRO live review) and the indie-classical strains of The National (QRO spotlight on) have made beauty something to build around in alternative music, eschewing rock or experimentation for experimentation’s sake. With Penny Sparkle, Blonde Redhead fully join their Big Apple beauty brethren – though something is lost in the process, as well.
Twin brothers Simon (drums) and Amedeo (guitar/vocals) Pace still form the instrumentation behind singer/bassist/keyboardist and lovely frontwoman Kazu Makino, but Penny Sparkle sees Blonde Redhead move even further from their rock roots (once compared to Sonic Youth – QRO live review – as their 1995 self-titled debut was produced by SY drummer Steve Shelley). Hauntingly beautiful and touching from opener/single “Here Sometimes” through to the high and effective closer “Spain”, Penny is a fully constructed atmosphere. There’s not a piece on it that doesn’t waft down beauty or chill your spine.
But is it too much to criticize the record for that being all that it does? On their last, 2007’s 23 (QRO review), Blonde Redhead’s beauty also had a force that made for a much fuller sound. Unfortunately, Penny can feel at times all clouds, no ground. There is some fullness to “Here” or “Everything Is Wrong”, and the restraint to the title track makes for something different, but most of the time it’s hard to tell one song from the last, and even the greatest lover of beauty might want something to chew on occasionally.
After the greatness that was 23, Blonde Redhead kind of had to slip a bit. But Penny Sparkle feels more like a choice made by the band, to go fully for their airy beauty. Even if you quibble with that choice, they’ve certainly done very well what they were setting out to do in this age of beauty.