Throughout Blonde Redhead’s 21-year history, the band has undergone a series of gradual but still drastic reinventions. Beginning as an abrasive, New York City-based art-punk outfit, singer Kazu Makino, along with vocalist/guitarist Amedeo Pace and twin-brother drummer Simone, received early cosigns and production help from Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. In 2000, the band drifted toward the ethereal and accessible with Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons, solidifying the toned-down shift with 2004’s gorgeous and delicate Misery Is A Butterfly. Following experiments in shoegaze on 23 and heavily-synthesized dream pop on Penny Sparkle comes Barragán, the band’s ninth album and most understated to date. Another chapter in Blonde Redhead’s constant evolution, it’s at times enchanting but is also marred by occasionally meandering songwriting.
Where Penny Sparkle’s maximalist production values sometimes drowned its songs in processed sterility, Barragán finds the band stripping back both in volume and composition. This new direction works remarkably well on the LP’s lead singles, allowing the songs to take shape organically. “No More Honey” seamlessly saunters with a buoyant bass line, punctuated by Makino’s airy coos and explosions of swirling guitars. Meanwhile, “Dripping” features sticky percussion and a slight, seductive groove, simultaneously highlighting Amedeo’s underrated prowess as a vocalist. With those tracks, there’s enough propulsive movement and textured compositional nuance to make for an engaging listen.
When Barragán does falter, it’s from unduly eccentric studio flourishes and somewhat indulgent song structures. For instance, the weightlessly serene backdrop of “Defeatist Anthem (Harry And I)” is disrupted by a latter half of misplaced field recordings and a wandering, prolonged jam. “Mind To Be Had” fails to earn its drawn-out nine-minute runtime, aimlessly repeating its opening chord progression for minutes too long. There are also ill-advised experiments with folk music, like the bizarre lilting flute on the instrumental opening title track or the languidly plucked arrangement on closer “Seven Two,” which the charming vocal interplay between Makino and Amedeo barely salvages.
For all its low points, Barragán still floats on the strength of Makino’s alluring voice and the band’s deft ear for lovely atmospherics. Instead of making grand statements with its offerings, Blonde Redhead has always succeeded in making mood music, setting a scene with a subtle synth or a hazily rendered guitar part. But during the slightly jazzy number “Cat On Tin Roof,” Makino breaks character and notes, “Maybe we should work on it a little bit more.” While it’s an in-studio observation kept in the final mix, it’s hard not to agree with her.