[N]ow, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Hunter S. Thompson
General consensus is that the first Blonde Redhead album to signal the change from Sonic Youthian guitar freakery to sweltering, lushly orchestrated pop music was Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. Produced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, it would have come as a shock to Blonde Redhead fans that had been with the band from the beginning.
The first track, “Equally Damaged,” was a forty-second pink-sounding instrumental that spiraled into a flutter of tweets – an onomatopoeic bird skirmish. This song folded neatly into the next song, “In Particular,” which held in it the trademarks of the new Blonde Redhead direction: the guitars were delicate, not distorted and they emphasised melody; the vocals were sweet, and the lyrics took on a Rutabaga-like bittersweet flavour. More important, however, was the change in percussion, which incorporated handclaps, drum fills and a steadier, more danceable beat. This was no desultory change.
The next record, Misery is a Butterfly was a triumph of melody, misery and, above all, rhythm, with the drums sounding more and more programmed and triggered. As Blonde Redhead released more records, so were they pulled further in this direction, landing eventually at the bloodless, sterile Penny Sparkle – 'bloodless' and 'sterile' not used to criticise.
Of course, this is what one experienced when travelling in that particular direction, purchasing the records in the order they were released. If in the year 2000, however, you happened to be working in a microbiology laboratory with a pack of culturally dead misfits whose favourite radio station was that one that played old-timey rock and roll songs between the honest-to-god sermonising of priests and the like, and the only time you got to listen to something decent was the few minutes you were allowed to grab snatches of decent radio, then the first Blonde Redhead song you would have heard was “Elephant Woman,” and you would’ve been sold once those strings and vocals kicked in. If this unlikely sequence of events were to have proven true, then the first record you would have purchased was Misery is a Butterfly, triumphant in its melody, its misery and its precise rhythms.
Then, travelling backwards, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons wouldn’t have been a shock, but a mere staging ground for what was to follow. No, the record before that one, In an Expression of the Inexpressible, would then be the one to make you gasp, it being the first record to open with a tape thrip followed by a squall.
So... wouldn’t that make Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons the high-water mark, where the wave finally broke and rolled back? No. That would be In an Expression of the Inexpressible. Listen to “10,” the second song, with its effects-modified drum that runs underneath the entire song, punctuated by the clean sounding drums and those explosive handclaps. Check out “Missile ++,” with its no-waveish pulsing organ and Kazu’s keening vocals – and, more importantly, the clave followed by that impish shake of a maraca. Seeds of the forthcoming percussive revolution.
Of course, whilst elements of what was to come later in Blonde Redhead can be found even in their earliest material, just as elements of their beginnings can be found in their end, In an Expression of the Inexpressible is still where you can most clearly see a band caught in the process of evolution.
What makes that album really special, however, is the inclusion of the appositely titled “Distilled,” which distilled where Blonde Redhead were coming from and where they were going into the best pop song ever written.
Written on Monday, 12 November 2012