The band's unique sound - combining spare otherworldliness and bittersweet tension - can be traced back to their earliest releases in the mid-'90s (issued by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's Smells Like Records label). At the outset of their career, these characteristics were perhaps outweighed by a stridency and an impulsive abrasiveness inspired by the no-wave explorations of Downtown NYC and the refusenik spirit of Washington DC's Dischord roster. But Blonde Redhead's command of oblique melody and interest in textural experimentation started to flower more confidently when the band signed to Touch And Go. A broader range of influences started to have their effect on the music, and the trio's artistic progress was triumphantly confirmed by the appearance, in 2000, of Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons.
Although this record slipped almost invisibly past the music press, it did inspire devotion bordering on zealotry among its listeners. In fact, Blonde Redhead's reputation has never really been built on media acclaim, which goes some way towards explaining the band's vague mystique. Melody? went on to sell more than 50,000 copies in the States alone, and like a handful of other records that managed to redefine what a post-punk band was capable of expressing (Slint's Spiderland springs to mind), it now enjoys a confirmed place in the pantheon of American underground rock music.
Something of an achievement, given that none of the band are American. The Pace brothers moved from Milan to Montreal as teenagers, while Kazu relocated from her home town of Kyoto in the early '90s to study in New York, which is where the band initially formed and where all three still live. These tangled paths are reflected in the intuitive twists and turns of Blonde Redhead's music, which has increasingly shed its influences to follow a strange, bewitching and cosmopolitan logic of its own.
Blonde Redhead signed to 4AD in 2003 and delivered their first record for nearly four years shortly afterwards. It was instantly obviously that Misery Is A Butterfly was as much of a creative leap forward from Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons as that record was from its predecessors. The trio's gently mournful economy of style was adorned by a cinematic breadth of instrumentation. Although the lyric writing was split (as usual) between Kazu and Amedeo, the rich depth of the arrangements created a striking and convincing unity of purpose. Nothing was straightforward or unfiltered by imagination - Kazu and Amedeo's wonderfully nuanced singing allowed the emotion in the songs to slip out surreptitiously, almost secretly, while Simone's drumming was a parade of deft inflections throughout. It's almost as if the increased scope of the record was a reward for its lengthy gestation period, although reality isn't quite as simple as that. The hiatus was largely caused by an accident - Kazu was seriously injured after being thrown from a horse in 2002.
Whatever the reason, Misery Is A Butterfly featured some of the most tender music in the Blonde Redhead catalogue: witness thee staccato clavinet and shivering, string-laden sweep of "Elephant Woman", or the wistful swell and shimmer of "Anticipation" and "Magic Mountain". Other tracks were more full-blooded, notably Amedeo-written offerings "Falling Man" and "Maddening Cloud" and the hypnotic "Pink Love" - all three underpinned by Simone's potent, multidimensional rhythms. The two worlds were united by closer "Equu s", its spare, lithe introduction mutating into a chanted chorus of real intensity. Throughout, keyboards, violins and cellos swirled through the mix, conjuring plangent atmospheres and providing a fluid counterpoint to the angluar starkness of Blonde Redhead's early releases.
Misery Is A Butterfly became the most successful album of Blonde Redhead's career, outselling Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons in the USA and greatly expanding their audiences in the rest of the world. The band will perform in London in November 2005 as part of 4AD's 25th anniversary celebrations 1980 Forward.