I waited a few days before this because I wanted to time it right. You see, several weeks ago I learned that Blonde Redhead was playing a show in Buenos Aires, and though I already knew this album had a spot reserved in my personal ranking of albums of the 2000s, I wanted to be able to write about the album and about the show in a single entry. This is partly because my laziness knows no bounds, but also because I wanted to see the show so I could replenish my supply of hyperbolic adjectives. But yeah, mostly laziness.
I was first introduced to this amazing band while I was in high school. As was the case with And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead, they came to my attention thanks to a good friend. Unlike the case with Trail Of The Dead, this was a friend I was very much in love with– in that very intense, very hopeless, very teenage sort of way. This was a girl I met online. A girl who lived very far from me. I’m sure you see where this is going.
As tends to happen with these teenage infatuations, our relationship progressed at an alarming rate, with hours upon hours of AIM conversations and a flurry of e-mail exchanges. Said emails usually contained links to music. And this girl, God bless her, she introduced me to music that would stay with me forever. Apart from Blonde Redhead, she was also the first person to ever expose me to Ryan Adams, Wilco, Rachel Yamagata, The Decemberists, Reindeer Section– a lot of music that is still very dear to me, and that I look back on as a soundtrack to my youth, I was first introduced to by this girl. In terms of landmarks in my life, and people who really made a difference in my development, she was a pretty decisive figure. She was also the person who got me watching Czech New Wave cinema, which was the first foreign film movement I really dove into… so I guess, in some small way, she’s also partly responsible for instilling the illusions of cosmopolitanism I’ve built my adult persona around.
Speaking of illusions of cosmopolitanism, you can’t get much more cosmopolitan than Blonde Redhead: formed in New York, the union of Japanese singer Kazu Makino and Italian twin brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace. Blonde Redhead started out as a loud, blistering noise-rock experiment a-la Sonic Youth, then taking a turn towards melodic dream-pop at the turn of the century, yet retaining the overriding darkness and punch of their original incarnation. As solid as those early tunes are, it wasn’t until 2000’s wonderful “Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons” that the band sounded comfortable with their own sound, which became more nuanced: texture and melody popped through more prominently in arrangements that sounded both powerful and hopelessly fragile; like the songs would collapse upon themselves at any moment. This new approach heightened, and was heightened by, the desperate frailty of Makino’s vocals; her accented delivery and pungent, fragmented imagery pushing the songs further into the abstract.
“Misery is a Butterfly”, the follow-up to “Melody of a Certain Damaged Lemons”, is a fully-formed version of this approach, and delivers on the promise its predecessor showed. It’s an album of broken melodies, permeated by sadness and beauty. Anchored by the themes of injury and healing (the long stretch of time between albums was due to Makino’s bedridden recovery process after being trampled by a horse, which greatly influenced the lyrical content of the record). The arrangements are more elegant and grandiose, incorporating strings and experimenting further with textures. As a result, the songs are a lot more dramatic, loaded with pathos, less intense on a purely superficial level but somehow all the more urgent for it.
This album is probably best known for its stunning opening track, “Elephant Woman”, which ran over the credits to “Hard Candy”, a relentlessly dark little movie about lies, manipulation and the depths of human darkness. Come to think of it, the entire album would be appropriate for that film, as its subdued pace and minor chord keyboard sound conveys a strange darkness and mystery, like Chopin’s Nocturnes. A lot of these melodic turns would fit right in with the Romantics.
Suffice it to say, “Misery is a Butterfly” became an instant favorite of mine. This is further credence to my theory that I am somehow impervious to “musical downers”– more on that in another entry. I listen to this album regularly, and it occupies a proud spot in my personal record collection right alongside “Disintegration” and other relentlessly sad records. So I was thrilled to find they were coming to Buenos Aires for the first time ever, and immediately purchased a ticket. They performed at Niceto– a hipster nightclub in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, just a block away from my office. It’s my new favorite venue because it’s tiny, has fantastic ambiance and excellent sound. I’ve seen three shows there in the last month, and always find it enjoyable. There’s not a bad seat in the house. Well, I mean, there aren’t any seats at all, but that’s beside the point.
The show blew me away. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect– I’d kind of lost track of the band after they released “23” in 2007, and I still haven’t listened to their latest album, “Penny Sparkle”, but I was absolutely sold from the very first note performed on stage. Blonde Redhead put on an amazing show. Kazu Makino isn’t a human being, she’s a fountain of music in the shape of a tiny Asian girl. The show was tight, powerful and ethereal. Their set is high drama and urgency, soaking the air with feverish sound. Every song– whether noisy and dissonant or dreamy and shoegazy– was absolutely magnificent.
I left feeling elated and inspired. And with a nagging feeling that, y’know, maybe I should give that girl from the internet a phone call, and let her know I still carried that part of her with me. I dunno. We’re not the people we were back then, but, sometimes, it’s just nice to… let people know. You know?
Click the player below to listen to the gorgeous title track to Blonde Redhead’s 2004 album, “Misery is a Butterfly”: