By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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Kazu Makino has a voice so shiny and cold, you can almost hear the titanium in her face. The Kyoto-born singer of Blonde Redhead—the New York art-rock trio composed of Makino and Milanese twins Amedeo and Simone Pace—was severely injured in a 2002 riding accident. She was thrown to the ground, her jaw shattered by the full weight of a horse's hoof. At the time, it was unclear whether she'd be able to sing again. She spent months with her jaw wired shut. On cold mornings, she can feel the metal implants. "It's amazing, because your life goes through so many different phases, but you don't realize your attitudes change," Makino says over the phone. She has just returned from Iceland, where the band was touring to promote 23, its second album for 4AD. "You feel like you're always the same...but you are changing."
Though they may not have realized it at the time, the travails members of Blonde Redhead weathered in the first years of the decade—the accident, the band's split from former label Touch & Go, the loss of their longtime rehearsal space and, of course, 9/11—caused them to rethink their approach, resulting in a new sonic direction. The group's outstanding 2003 album, Misery Is a Butterfly, released four years after its Touch & Go swansong, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, exuded a graceful but deep-cutting gravitas. The radiant, elegiac quality of songs such as "Falling Man" gave form to the pervasive psychic cloud that encompassed New York City in the wake of the WTC attacks. "I wasn't trying to capture [the mood after 9/11], but I think we were so deep into that dark space that we didn't even realize how dark it was," Makino says. "When you're so deep in it, you forget the outside...So you stop questioning how things are, but at times, I was like, well, how many things can go wrong?"
The band's decision to leave Touch & Go was informed by several factors: dissatisfaction with European distribution, the band's desire to retain ownership rights to its master tapes and growing studio budgets. The layered, nuanced quality of Misery and 23 is the result of Blonde Redhead's increased attention to studio technique: Both were considerably more recording-intensive than earlier albums, which were generally captured live. "We worked on 23 a long time," says Makino, "but we also didn't want to overwork it, so we left it loosely written. And it was kind of scary, because we decided the structures and the endings and intros in the studio...we left it open."
Indeed, 23 surpasses Misery in its sweeping, cinematic feel and sheer sublime emotiveness. The dueling post-punk guitars of earlier albums have been subdued and streamlined; waves of ominous synth buoy Makino's sorrowful wail on tracks such as "Dr. Strangeluv." Her oddly androgynous (and, at times, bracing) vocal timbre has found greater purchase in the music by virtue of the band's increasingly sophisticated arrangements. The thick, hypnotic, pristinely recorded drum rhythms of songs such as "SW" (which also features vocals from Amedeo Pace) drive the momentum of the album, tying its shifting moods together into what stands as Blonde Redhead's most coherent album to date; one that communicates a newfound confidence imbued with a palpable spontaneity.
"When I heard the mixed version of the album, I really felt, wow, this is like a whole new kind of music, and I felt really lucky that we were the ones who wrote it," Makino explains. "I felt like I've never really been here, and I'm so relieved and excited that there's something to be explored...I have something to look forward to, because I don't know exactly what it is that we did, you know? I felt like I have a new path now that I can go down."
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