The band that leaves lipstick traces

Blonde Redhead’s latest album, ’23,’ is a different look for the group, but it still dabbles in the art of seduction

Haily Gostas

If Blonde Redhead was personified, she would likely be of the classic noir femme fatale type, the willingly detached seductress who burns her bridges and shape-shifts as needed into a sexy beast all at once dangerous and strangely alluring. She can be moody, she can be distant and she fascinates most when she begins to edge away from who you thought she once was. Naturally, part of upholding this bit means she must remake her image and identity every few years in order to avoid being recognized from the last.

Blonde Redhead

ALBUM: “23”
LABEL: 4AD

“23” is Blonde Redhead’s latest (seventh, if you’re counting) full-length offering, an audio obstacle course of almost too-lush proportions that turns the art-pop melancholia of 2004’s “Misery Is a Butterfly” up to a most indulgent 11. Yes, it will likely be the facelift that provides a coveted catapult into the mainstream thanks to its epic (and, at times, slightly lukewarm) balladry; and yes, it is a shade below their best work because of this. Still, “23” represents yet another ultimately attractive shift in Blonde Redhead’s dynamic, and a decent enough reason to continue tuning into their brand of musical soap opera.

It’s easy to blame the big-time sound on big-time hit- maker Alan Moulder (U2, the Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode). Perhaps Kazu Makino (voice, guitars) and twins Amedeo (voice, guitars) and Simone (drums) Pace were already jonesing for a more extravagant production well before Moulder swept in. Either way, “23” is awash with a melodic storm of sonic guitar distortion, propulsive drums and an extra-hearty smattering of piercingly ethereal female-male vocals.

Therefore, Blonde Redhead now sound more like starry-eyed arena rockers than the razor-sharp architects of abstraction many have come to know and love in the 13 years since the NYC trio’s inception. Still, you can’t turn away – “23” unfolds like a gorgeously vivid fever dream that explores the smoldering connections between sex and art, life and death, bliss and tragedy. Drowsy cries of anguish float in and out of focus above layers of strings and keys while the restrained atmospherics of songs like “The Dress” suddenly give to urgent, grandiose pleas (“SW,” “Spring and by Summer Fall”). It’s a truly engrossing listen overall, proving that Blonde Redhead very much deserve the success already given to bedfellows Radiohead and Sonic Youth.

Sure, “23” is produced and polished to high heaven (and yet it still somehow doesn’t sparkle quite as much as their previous efforts), but it’s quite beautiful and irresistible regardless, like bittersweet, bewitching background music that threatens to steal the scene. The smarts of certain songs take their time to emerge, but, when they do, you’re able to see the new side of a band still able to fascinate their ever-expanding pool of listeners.

Camouflaged by all the cinematic gloss is actually a set of well-written songs more imaginative, sensuous and ornamental than anything dry-humping the pop charts right now. It’s fodder for instant connection, certainly, but it’s also vaguely reminiscent of that minx you once met at a bar.

Remember her? She loved and left you, lipstick-smeared and passed out with fake phone number in hand, as she quietly melted into the evening. “23” is like that – Blonde Redhead’s latest sequence of warm, textured rock will probably transform yet again for their next album, but for now, it’s good enough to lure you into its lair like only true seductresses can.