Following an album as majestic and innovative as 23 would be a hefty challenge for any band, so Blonde Redhead went in a very different direction with Penny Sparkle. Intricate, volatile guitar work has been the mainstay of Blonde Redhead's work since the beginning, even when nearly everything else about their music changed. This time, Amedeo and Simone Pace and Kazu Makino pare the guitars down to a bare minimum, letting the electronic flirtations on 23 develop into a full-blown romance. Though it’s not the most drastic revision the band has made over the years -- comparing Blonde Redhead's Touch & Go output with their 4AD work is almost like hearing the work of two unrelated bands -- it’s one of the most initially jarring. Though the band had explored its more delicate side for nearly a decade by the time Penny Sparkle was released, at first, it doesn’t seem like the album’s spare beats and synths can support its melodies. With time, however, Blonde Redhead's collaboration with producers Alan Moulder and Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid is just as rewarding in its own fine-boned way as their earlier work. “Here Sometimes” makes the most of Makino’s one-of-a-kind vocals; she still sings in a dialect all her own, hovering somewhere in between Japanese, English, French, and alien, and the song’s limpid electronics bend to her reverie. “Not Getting There” is the closest Penny Sparkle gets to a pop song, and one of the few times the guitars rise above a murmur. From there, the album just gets sparer and more experimental -- the title track is little more than Makino’s lonesome voice and a dubby beat -- but this approach suits these songs about daydreams and escape. “Love or Prison,” which sets one of the album’s most beautiful melodies afloat on arpeggiated keyboards and percussion that sounds like rattling chains, is a subtle standout; the same could be said of “Black Guitar,” a complicated love song that ranks among Blonde Redhead's finest duets. They get a little too close to trip-hop for their own good on a few songs, and their widescreen drama is missed occasionally, but Penny Sparkle is still another beautiful reinvention for Blonde Redhead.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares