New York trio Blonde Redhead could never be accused of finding a niche and sticking to it since their formation (initially as a quartet) in 1993; their eight albums to date have taken us on a tour – primarily through dream pop and shoegaze fields admittedly – that has often delved into experimental art.
Penny Sparkle from 2010 is their most recent offering. Subject to mixed reviews, it was seen by some as a backward step after the two most revered efforts Misery Is A Butterfly (2004) and 23 (2007). Whilst Penny Sparkle was still worthy of recognition greater than just ‘background music’, its follow-up Barragán will push the limits of your listening ability and patience further in places.
Sharing its name with a famous architect, Barragán offers its title track as an opening intro, acoustic guitar pluckings and flute portray a sorrowful mood, initially threatening to go all Stairway To Heaven on us before taking comfort in its own simplicity and disappearing as quietly as it appeared after just two minutes of serenity.
Lady M introduces Kazu Makino’s distinct vocals but there’s a surprising lack of anything approaching shoegaze for another minimal effort of delicate beauty, Oriental sounding synths and more flute being at the core of the track. Two songs from the album have been shared by the band to date – Dripping and No More Honey – and it’s the former that appears next. A slightly faster tempo makes for the best moment so far, Simone Pace this time taking the lead vocal for something reminiscent of Heterotic when they had Gravenhurst‘s Nick Talbot on board, its sinister synth note twangs creating an excellent atmospheric groove but it’s not the Blonde Redhead many will be expecting.
Cat On Tin Roof sounds as if it has some words missing from its title and the song itself lacks something, a descending, repetitive bass line driving the track forward at a lacklustre pace as Makino’s warblings do little to rescue a mediocre effort that touches the experimental again. The One I Love is more frailty, again there’s an Oriental feel but the minimalism goes even further, plucked harp, spinet and no percussion create something rather more Medieval. It’s certainly intriguing, but likely to leave many fans wondering if someone’s switched albums whilst their head was turned.
No More Honey is perhaps closer to what one might expect from the band: miminal beginnings marry with Makino’s vocals before a vibrating, shoegazey guitar four-note fuzz give the track a much needed injection of musical muscle. Mind To Be Had follows, and is quite simply the track that steals the album. A Krautrock like beat gets the track chugging through some mesmerising synth melodies for three minutes until Pace’s straining vocals arrive; it’s almost like Kraftwerk without the robotic singing and at over eight minutes it’s still over too soon.
Defeatist Anthem is another lengthy six minute number but it’s a mish mash of ideas rather than a fully coherent effort. Wholly different to what’s just gone before, Makino’s delicate vocals are back on lead during more minimalism but the constantly bubbling synth melody does little to thrill for its first section. The song then changes course a couple of times, sounding like completely different tracks, but each individual part sounds out of place with its companions, and too experimental and bland.
Penultimo is built on subtle drumming and a one-two keyboard rhythm, almost Portishead with another Oriental element which is all very nice but it doesn’t really please until its short chorus. Seven Two then closes the collection in more minimalist fashion, this time both vocalists contributing but by this time the formula is a bit boring, the delicate nature of many of the songs having dwarfed the best efforts on the album.
Barragán is a mixed bag of ideas thrown together with little cohesion and singular direction. Minimalism is something the band aren’t particularly renowned for but that is the overwhelming ingredient this time round. It has some great moments but is probably one to listen to when you want to drift off into a peaceful slumber.