Live: Blonde Redhead Vs. Machines
It's gotta be the shoes
Soho Apple Store
April 10, 2007
Plenty of good reasons exist for indie-rock bands to play in-store sets at the Apple Store, especially the one in Soho. Apple is, after all, pretty much the most important music store in the world these days, and if a stunt like that can get them iTunes front-page placement, it's worth a hundred Virgin Megastore acoustic sets. And the Soho Apple Store is actually a surprisingly functional venue: an actual stage, a whole lot of seats, a crystal-clear sound mix, relatively clear sightlines, and enough second-floor space to fit in at least a couple of hundred onlookers. And it's free, which is probably the reason why the line outside the venue last night wrapped around the block and why some of the people who got in must've been waiting for hours; everyone loves free stuff. But there's still something deeply wrong about seeing a downtown underground-rock institution like Blonde Redhead in such an antiseptic spot. For one thing, the building's sharp lines and minimalist geometric design clash blatantly with the band's elegantly rumpled art-deco messthetic. For another, the very concept of the record-store set, with all the casual access it implies, doesn't really mesh with a band as elegantly aloof as this one, whose members tend to play with their backs to the audience and who barely even make eye contact with each other, let alone us. Most glaringly, though, the Apple Store is a temple to technology, and Blonde Redhead seem to hate machines. That's not to say they're Luddites; onstage last night, they used vintage synths and electronic drum-pads and sequencers along with the usual guitar-bass-drums, and on one song, Kazu Makino sang along with backing-tape vocodered guide-vocals that meshed beautifully with her own. Even with all that accompaniment, though, Blonde Redhead base their sound around the three members' ability to rely on each other and sink perfectly into their organic locked-in sprawl. And last night, they seemed to hate their equipment, apologizing constantly about mics that sounded just fine to me. After three songs, Amedeo Pace addressed the audience for the first time: "It's a little strange playing here."
A couple of months ago, I wrote a review of the new Kristin Hersh album for Pitchfork, and I noted that her previous solo albums had all been released on the 4AD label and that this one, which Yep Roc released in the US, seemed to be missing the label's goth-pop aesthetic, which had bled a little bit into all of those previous albums. Some guy wrote me a huffy email to tell me that 4AD wasn't a goth label and that it never really was. So maybe some clarification was in order: I was using a weird and nebulous sort of personal definition of goth. I didn't mean that every band in 4AD history imitates Jim Morrison and wears black eyeliner and waves candelabras at the camera in their videos. What I meant is that those bands tended to prize a sort of soft-focus dread-infused mystery over sharp, concrete specifics and tangible melodies. Instruments smear into each other, vocals come loaded down with echo, lyrics rarely name names. Using that definition, pretty much the only 4AD band I can name that isn't at least a little bit goth is Belly; even the Pixies sort of qualify. As for 4AD's more recent signings, TV on the Radio's towering drone-pop and Celebration's damaged cabaret and even the muffled full-band production on the last four Mountain Goats albums could all fit under the umbrella, but no band makes a better case for the label's continuing gothness than Blonde Redhead. The band might've started out as Sonic Youth disciples, but their spiky guitar-noise gradually mutated into something way more elusive and cosmopolitan and seductive. Makino is Japanese, and the Pace twins are Italian, so all the lyrics come from people who speak English as their second language, which lends them a beguiling opacity. Simone Pace's drums fall into infinite-repeat grooves, but they leave holes in the rhythm, and the guitars and keyboards fill them up with spidery, intertwining rushes. As dark and tangled as their songs can be, though, they still have a underlying Velocity Girl sort of sweet romanticism to them. It's real opium-den music, comforting in its vagueness, and so 4AD is a perfect home for them.
But 23, their new album, actually suffers a bit for its toe-dips into oceanic shoegazer whirl. The band's last few albums had Fugazi's Guy Piccioto behind the boards, and nobody does intimate out-music like that dude. But the band recruited My Bloody Valentine/Nine Inch Nails producer Alan Moulder to shape 23, and as Shawn Bosler writes on Pitchfork this morning, the results obscure the still-quite-pretty songs behind a few too many layers of big effects-pedal trickery. That sort of thing can work for a band like Nine Inch Nails, one whose sound is built for arenas. But Blonde Redhead's music is small and private, and they need analog nuance to sound their best. Those songs sounded better last night without all those layers of whoosh. At one point, I went to the bathroom, and the extra wall muffling everything made it all sound better still. They've got some bald guy playing bass for them onstage, and he builds up their bottom-end without compromising their slink, walking a tight line. Still, the bassist probably wasn't entirely necessary; when he watched them play their drawn-out final note from the side of the stage, nobody really missed him. Onstage as on record, the band depends on the assured interplay of Makino and the Pace twins; they find relaxed but tricky grooves and then stretch them out, never rushing toward their climaxes. They only played six songs last night, but all those songs unfolded according to their own logic and only ended when they were good and ready, spiraling outward into slow concentric circles. This band hit its apex seven years ago on Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, the album where they found their ideal groove. They've only released two albums since then, but it's almost a shame to hear them pushing themselves when they can do that stoned-pulse thing for days. If they knew how good they sounded last night, they wouldn't have apologized about their mics.
Voice review: Hilary Chute on Blonde Redhead's Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons