I have a kneejerk inclination to equate Blonde Redhead to Asobi Seksu, and for obvious reasons. Both bands are based out of New York City. Both feature the remote, angelic voices of gifted, Japanese-born female leads. And both rely on a particularly airy brand of dream-pop to express their alienation and lost love. But whereas Asobi Seksu's latest release, 2009's Rewolf, painted its splendorous world with acoustic guitars, bell and hammer tones, and other organic atmospherics, the trippy trio of Blonde Redhead has gone in the opposite direction, diving headfirst into layers upon layers of electronic romanticism for their eighth studio album, Penny Sparkle.
And "trippy" seems to be the appropriate word here, as the electro-pop sounds of Penny Sparkle immediately smack of '90s European trip-hop artists, among them Massive Attack, Portishead, and Hooverphonic. Funereal and crawling, with a heaping amount of Bond-esque cinematic splendor thrown into the mix, the album suggests an all-too-familiar advertising vista: silver sports car piloted by a white-collar lothario, speeding through a clean, urban landscape slicked with fresh rainfall. In other words, for all its dreaminess, Penny Sparkle is clinical and almost always predictable, despite the exotic murmurs of lead singer Kazu Makino. It is her voice alone that manages to drag along the loose assemblage of fuzzy drum smacks, coy guitar hooks, and slithery keyboards into a semblance of sincere artistry.
Even then, it's difficult to shake the impression that Penny Sparkle has been shaped purely for commercial soundtrack purposes. The album is expertly crafted in a way that suggests committee-driven songwriting, wholly the result of tweaked knobs and a polished, synthetic production. Thus, even the ghostly allure of Makino's voice becomes collateral for a focus-group product: Tracks like the slinking "Oslo" succeed in making Makino the mysterious, sexy counterpart to a dark, industrial rhythm, but the mystique is largely manufactured. "Everything Is Wrong" strives to be a wintry dive into one woman's dissatisfaction, but covers little ground; ditto "Here Sometimes," which a features crunchy, sashaying synths and an assembly-line drumbeat that long exhaust their initial appeal in the track's five-minute runtime. "I can't see the lack of fireworks," Makino whispers, an appropriate sentiment, considering Blonde Redhead's inability to recognize the fabricated, hollow charm of Penny Sparkle.