When I was in college, I worked with a young lady I found to be quite alluring. Sparks flew, emotions ran high, boners formed, and we ended up dating for a month or so. Then I received my walking papers. Problem was, we still worked together. Correction: she worked for me at the university newspaper. What followed was the toughest few months of my life as I tried feebly to separate work and play — the personal equivalent of church and state. The tension was overwhelming; every guy that approached her during the day caused me to suspiciously raise an eyebrow. I invented large plots every time she started hanging out with a new guy, assuming that she was allotting sexual favors only Ron Jeremy could imagine, her virgin status notwithstanding. I started smoking cigarettes for the first time, sweated buckets, and thought about her in the shower as I closed my eyes and let the water coarse over my face.
Knowing firsthand how difficult it is to meld relationships with business, I can only imagine the trials wife and husband Kazu Makino and Amadeo Pace have faced over the years as they maintain Blonde Redhead (their band) and the Makino-Pace union (their relationship), but their tense, despairing music is as good an indication as any. Filled with references to the connection between sex and art, tortured cries of anguish from Makino and Pace, and a general sense of impending consequence, Blonde Redhead validate the axiom “you can’t choose whom you love” (Makino hints in interviews that her life would be a lot easier if her husband wasn’t in her band) while negating the notion of “two’s a company, three’s a crowd” (Amadeo’s brother Simone is the drummer/third wheel and has been throughout the band’s existence).
Somehow, love hasn’t torn Blonde Redhead apart; you could even say it keeps them together, as the trio has been a unit for nearly 15 years. Perhaps fueled by their suffocating need to stay together No Matter What, the New York group have released six stellar, consistently of-a-piece albums without losing any of their ambition. A slight shift in direction occurred with the release of the synth-weighted, almost operatic Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons in 2000, and as rumors of a band break-up loomed amid a horseback-riding accident, things didn’t look good. But then they reappeared with another tight album, Misery is a Butterfly, and another tour of the states.
With 23 now making its rounds, it appears we can all get ready for the same old schtick: Sonic Youth comparisons, judgments based on Makino’s polarizing voice alone, questions of artsiness vs fartsiness; the works. But what people SHOULD be talking about is how truly lucky we are that Blonde Redhead are sticking around, because 23, while a shade below their best work, represents another pleasant shift in dynamic and another reason to tune into their ongoing musical soap opera.
Just be sure to let 23 bloom, shed its legs, and fly around your room a few times before you turn off the light and curl up in bed. This ten-strip of tunes isn’t meant to leave you seeing stars and having visions — expecting the instantaneously warm Blonde Redhead of yore will leave you wondering if someone sold you bunk hits. But just as some of the most addicting culinary flavors are comparatively weak upon first taste, some of the best highs are subtle, lukewarm even. The appeal is that ingesting mild stimuli often warrants further exploration, whereas exceedingly strong stimuli can burrow so thoroughly into the brain it wears out relatively quickly. Just think about the last time you stared at a murderously bright fluorescent color for an extended period of time, then think about the long stretches of time you (hopefully) spend looking at the staid, white pages of a standard novel. Get it? There’s a reason most literature isn’t printed on neon-pink pages.
So when the repetitive rhythms of 23 don’t bowl you over like the first synth lines of Melody, allow yourself the opportunity to sit through its entirety. What you’ll find is an album that reveals its true personality slowly, surely, and yes, lovingly. The glorious horns pleated in the middle of “SW” just might change your life, but you have to give them the chance to do so. The beautiful purge of “Spring and by Summer Fall,” too, takes time to unravel, but when it does, you’ll see a new side of a band that has about-face’d enough over the course of their career to both maintain and thoroughly fascinate their core of listeners.
It won’t be hard to keep your attention fixed once you dedicate yourself to do so; Blonde Redhead are like that mopey, distant girl who fascinates you more and more even as she edges slowly away, preferring her privacy over your constant company. Their lyrics aren’t fodder for instant connections, nor are their shrill vocals easy to cozy up to. Makino and the Pace brothers won’t completely baffle you like the noise pioneers they were originally influenced by — DNA and the rest of the no-wavers — but they will challenge you. 23, then, is their latest audio obstacle course, and though it won’t lead you by the nose or grab you by the short hairs, it will lure you into its lair while keeping you at arm’s length, as only true seductors can.