The young archival record label Numero Group details a commitment to the history of modern music, collected and transmitted like an oral history through anthologies of obscure or forgotten artists. It is only sensible, then, that the label would opt to compile the early work of art rock icon Blonde Redhead for re-release. The group has been met with limited commercial success yet has gathered an impressive cult following, drawing over the years from the best ideas of noise rock, shoegaze and dream pop to craft its richly textured sound.
The anthology, entitled “Masculin Feminin,” collects Blonde Redhead’s first two records along with many of the band’s previously unreleased demos and singles from the mid-’90s. The music spans a hefty four LPs and includes a booklet that features a visual history of the band’s formative years. Altogether, the release represents a detailed and vibrant portrait of the group. Yet the anthology possesses more than mere historical value. While any good groupie will certainly drool over the release’s collectability, casual listeners will also find much to enjoy in the band’s more hard-boiled hidden gems.
Both of the records featured in the anthology were originally released in 1995, when the future of the dreamy aesthetic pioneered by shoegaze music and associated genres was still very much in question. Acts like Yo La Tengo were at the vanguard of this new alternative rock epoch, defining its sound on musically influential records that gained less traction in the mainstream; in this development, Blonde Redhead had a significant voice. As “Masculin Feminin” illustrates, the characterization of the band as another copycat group is hopelessly flawed. Tracks like “I Don’t Want U” and “U.F.O.” reveal a group of skilled musicians that is already confident drawing inspiration from the past in shaping its own future.
The tracks on this anthology may sound unusually raw at times, yet to an impressive degree they feature many of the elements that would later define the band’s characteristic sound. The melodious cadence of the Italian male vocalist Amedeo Pace and the textured wails of the Japanese female vocalist Kazu Makino shared a uniquely uncanny chemistry from the start, as demonstrated on highlight “Big Song.” Additionally, many of the tracks on the first half of the anthology feature the airtight drumming of Simone Pace as well as circular guitar riffs that sound familiarly soulful, though noisier and rawer than their dreamier counterparts on later releases.
Perhaps most notably, Blonde Redhead also reveals on “Masculin Feminin” its apparently innate talent that years needed not hone: the ability to harness the emotional poles of aggression, urgency, tenderness and vulnerability into a passionate flurry of tension that drives the music, particularly on what is arguably the record’s most well-executed track, “Astro Boy.” While the band would go on to perfect many of these elements in its later songwriting, the music collected in this anthology stands its own ground.
Much of the sensual, dreamy sensibilities of Blonde Redhead’s early sound would undeniably help shape the course of art rock in the following decades; the band’s influence only grew with time. Thus, while many have characterized the group as a junior version of luminaries My Bloody Valentine or Ride, this new anthology collected and released by Numero Group reveals decisively that Blonde Redhead is very much a self-contained phenomenon. The band’s earliest recordings demonstrate precocious vision and craft and are as worthy of note as its renowned later releases.
Artist: Blonde Redhead
Album: “Masculin Feminin”
Label: Numero Group
Favorite Track: “Astro Boy”
If you like: Yo La Tengo, Ride, My Bloody Valentine