By RICHARD BOHAN
This week, the weather’s constant mood swings made me dig up a favorite of mine, Penny Sparkle by Blonde Redhead; an album that is equally sunshine as it is rain.
Released in the summer of 2010, Penny Sparkle was the final death-knell for the band’s Sonic Youth influenced, art-rock past. Even 23—the band’s first venture into ambient sounds—still had a bit of a rock edge to it. Penny Sparkle saw the band trade in their guitars for a drum machine, and in the process the album became severely underrated.
The LP kicks off on a misleading note. “Here Sometimes” lingers with a breezy, carefree melody, but its melancholic tinge only hints at what’s to come (“I’m only here sometimes under the tree of life”). You can even dance a bit to “Not Getting There,” a track that begins with the menacing, “You already know, this won’t end with kisses,” sung over a prominent synth-bass line. The band then switches gears with “My Plants Are Dead,” and the rest of the album engulfs the listener like dark brown sap to a fly.
There’s “Love or Prison,” a cinematic ballad with a beautiful, forlorn chorus under bubbling, radiant synths (“In your love I swear / In your love I hide / In your love I sleep”). In contrast, the title track is stark minimalism that recalls Fever Ray, but with less of the vocal theatrics. Alan Moulder and Van Rivers & The Subliminal Kid take up some of the production work, which would explain why many of the album’s brooding moments sound like Karin Dreijer Andersson being dipped in honey. However, there are lighter moments in the album; the waltz-like “Everything Is Wrong” has a whimsical playground feel to it.
Then there’s the highlight of the album, “Black Guitar,” a spooky duet between Amedeo Pace and Makino with a restrained guitar that strums quietly in the background—possibly the last vestiges of the instrument found anywhere on the album. The song won me over with its understated mood. It’s dreary, but never failing to be beautiful.
Just when you thought it was bleak, the album’s closer begins. “Spain,” with its haunting ‘oohs’ and atmosphere as thick as “Black Guitar,” is unrelenting in its drama—“I don’t mean to flatter you,” Makino yells at a mysterious lover. As the singer delivers the final line of the song (“Let us share our blood and hearts”) the song slowly fades out, and I’m left with the sound of rain pounding on my window.