The constantly evolving Blonde Redhead go electronic on Penny Sparkle, an album that deserves the time it requires to appreciate 

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It's fitting that the venerable New York trio Blonde Redhead would title its latest album Penny Sparkle, despite the fact that it has little to do with singer Kazu Makino's horse, Penny, or said steed's radiance. Sure, Makino ponders her beloved pet's thoughts in the warm, Björk-ian title track, but this is hardly a concept album. No, the title makes sense in light of how the band's latest stylistic evolution, heavier on electronic production than ever before, has been received since Penny Sparkle was released just over a month ago.

Since then, music critics (this one included) have found it difficult to take their ears off the record's synthetic, programmed veneer, which on first listen can feel thin and contrived, as if the band is depending too much on the studio prowess of Swedish producers Van Rivers and The Subliminal Kid. It turns out, however, that like so many other memorable records, Penny Sparkle ages really well, confounding the notion that Makino and twin brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace have somehow lost their touch. More than that, once fully re-calibrated to the shift, you'll find plenty of the finessed organic instrumentation that makes this band so addicting in the first place — it's just hiding behind engulfing synths, and atop sequences of digital percussion.

It wasn't the mere concept of an aesthetic shift that initially threw me, of course — since Blonde Redhead emerged in 1995 with its angular, post-punk debut on Steve Shelley's Smells Like Records label, the band has steadily mutated and matured its sound with each subsequent record. That same year, in fact, the trio released the equally lo-fi La Mia Vita Violenta, but began toying with slower, moodier textures, even layering a tinny sitar melody on "Harmony" and hinting at its future experiments in atmosphere with "Young Neil." A few years later, in 1997, the band signed with the now-defunct Touch & Go, releasing Fake Can Be Just as Good, In an Expression of the Inexpressible and Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, the latter two finally dissolving the sentiment that Blonde Redhead were merely another group of Sonic Youth sycophants who would leave no mark of their own on New York's vibrant noise tradition. Those records also marked the beginning of the band's creative accord with Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, who in 2003 would help the visionary trio create what is perhaps its crowning achievement, Misery Is a Butterfly. Like Radiohead's OK Computer or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Misery is a collection that sings a dark and enigmatic tune all its own — a sensuous, haunting affair that's stylistically almost impossible to classify.

Then, in 2007, the airy, decidedly non-angular 23 arrived, which All Music Guide's Heather Phares called, "Blonde Redhead's loveliest and most accessible work to date." She was right: If Misery is a Butterfly marked the pinnacle, or encapsulation, of the band's sharply drawn, art-punk beginnings, 23 heralded its flattening out — while still guitar-heavy, the record paid more allegiance to the winding somnolence of My Bloody Valentine than the atonal theatrics of DNA, the late-'70s "no wave" band from which Blonde Redhead procured its name. Tellingly, the record was mixed by Alan Moulder, who besides producing MBV's ever-influential Loveless album, has worked with The Cure, Ride, Nine Inch Nails and The Jesus and Mary Chain, whose collective influence can be easily found in the melancholic, romantic textures of 23.

Three years removed, and the band once more tapped Moulder, along with Drew Brown (Radiohead, Beck) and the young Swedes, to perpetuate its drift into the ethereal pastures of Penny Sparkle, fences of which Makino and the brothers Pace curiously peered over on 23. The band's latest is a dense, nuanced collage of minimalist electronica and listless dream pop, all cloaked in its trademark crestfallen sensibilities. Yes, its muted beats and elegant synths at times evoke Swedish phenoms The Knife (also clients of Van Rivers and The Subliminal Kid), but a few discerning listens should purge the temptation to simply write off the record as derivative. Indeed, beyond the fact that Penny Sparkle glows with the band's irreplaceably affecting timbre — "Not Getting There," "Will There Be Stars," "Oslo" and "Spain" are particularly great — the trio has by now hopefully earned more of our trust than a passing glance could rightfully respect. Further, it's to the band's credit that it keeps making records worth debating, or reconsidering, in the first place — the embodiment of resilience in an age that too often rewards those looking for the immediate flash.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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