When Blonde Redhead released 23 in 2007, it earned a ton of buzz from the industry. For me, it was love at first listen. I was entranced by the lush soundscapes and unabashed weirdness of 23 and soon found myself working my way backwards through the band’s very solid discography.
When Blonde Redhead released Penny Sparkle in 2010, it was a marked departure from the sound I was used to from the band, and critics responded with mixed reviews. This week the group released their latest album, Barragán, and while it moves away from the electronic sounds of Penny Sparkle, it isn’t a return to the fullness of Blonde Redhead’s earlier albums either. It is a sparse, minimalist record that is tightly contained within itself — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
On my first listen through Barragán, I knew I wasn’t going to be drawn in and blown away the way I was with 23. Kazu Makino’s voice is, as it always has been, delicate and quiet, but gone is the counterbalance of Amedeo Pace’s swelling guitar riffs. In its place is the sound of empty space interspersed with random noises: doors closing, cars passing by, the clacking of a typewriter, etc.
The album opens quietly with its title track, “Barragán,” which is the Spanish word for “warrior.” The Spanish influence can easily be heard, but the song bears no indication of war as a flute lilts on a backdrop of classical guitar and the sounds of the day. “Lady M” follows and immediately distances itself from “Barragán” as a strange albeit funky song that is spastic without ever slipping its constraints.
“Dripping” seems more focused with a definite and driving beat that is once again very self-contained, but the track becomes more accessible with repeated listenings. Electronic elements are used liberally to create a spacey effect, but the music is definitely down to earth. At its core, it could almost be considered a pop song. “Cat On Tin Roof” veers off into yet another direction and recalls the Krautrock trend of the 1960s with a strumming bass line punctuated by Makino’s whimsical voice.
“The One I Love” hearkens back to the Baroque sound of “Barragán,” building on a theme that sounds like it came straight out of a piano technical practice set (shout out to anyone who hated playing from those). It even sounds like they use a harpsichord at points. Lyrically, the track packs the same kind of emotional punch that Blonde Redhead is known for, but in all the places where the song could soar and grow, the sound is frustratingly contained. Then again, maybe it’s a sign of maturity that they are able to quell that emotional swell. The track does (weirdly) end with some discordant sounds before transitioning into “No More Honey,” a track that writhes and slinks on a spacious riff and marks the closest Barragán gets to the shoegazey sweep of prior Blonde Redhead albums.
The second half of Barragán gets a bit sluggish. Where the first few songs don’t run for much longer than four minutes each, “Mind To Be Had” is a nine-minute build-up that never reaches a conclusion (unless you count the addition of Simone Pace’s voice halfway through). The same is true of “Defeatist Anthem (Harry and I),” which repeats the same theme without really expanding it. However, “Seven Two” does close the album appropriately. It is a wistful and somber song that ends the record as quietly as it began. Whether or not you let it fade from memory is entirely up to you.
Barragán is not a particularly accessible album for longtime listeners because it’s so different, but it does grow on you if you give it a chance. Its biggest misstep is its lack of cohesiveness and common theme, not its minimalism. The sound is still interesting, the lyrics will still touch you emotionally, and overall, Barragán is still very much a Blonde Redhead record.
If you’re a longtime fan, repeat listens to Barragán will leave you with a lot to appreciate. Whether or not you like the album will depend on how willing you are to embrace the fact that Blonde Redhead is not going to stick to the formula that spawned the success of 23. They are going to experiment with their sound in whatever way they want, and if you’re willing to come along for the ride, you’ll discover new things to love about the group.
Tickets for Blonde Redhead’s performance at The Fonda Theatre on November 12th are now available.
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