Graded on a Curve: Blonde Redhead,
Masculin Féminin

It was through an association with the Brit company 4AD that NYC’s Blonde Redhead reached their largest audience, but back before their relationship with Chicago’s Touch and Go label, the group delivered two full-lengths on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley’s imprint Smells Like Records. Long hard to find, both discs have been freshly reissued by Numero Group alongside a considerable heap of additional material as Masculin Féminin; spreading 37 tracks across two CDs or eight sides of vinyl, it stands as much more than a prologue to subsequent higher-profile accomplishments.

Numero Group’s 200 Line commenced in 2012 with When I See the Sun, a 6LP discographical roundup of the NYC band Codeine. Since then, the series has continued to provide exhaustive and exquisitely designed underground documentation; diving next into the oeuvre of Tumwater/ Olympia, WA act Unwound produced a whopping four boxsets spanning from 2013 to September of last year.

Earlier in 2015 they unveiled The Best of the Best Show, a 16CD immersion into the radio comedy team Scharpling & Wurster, and 2016 has brought increased and wide-ranging activity: It Came from N.Y.C. is an unexpected and welcome plunge into the noise-scum rock era of White Zombie; A Place Called Bad compiles the output of Australian swamp-scuzz titans The Scientists; and now comes Masculin Féminin, which adds two LPs of singles, demos, and live tracks to Blonde Redhead’s initial pair of albums. It completes what can be described as their first phase.

Not that there weren’t changes in this period, the biggest being Maki Takahashi’s departure after the self-titled first record, which left them a trio composed of Italian twin brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace and Kazu Makino, who like Takahashi had traveled to NYC from Japan to attend art school. At the outset fairly branded as being heavily under the sway of Sonic Youth, the assessment was only enhanced at the time by their connection to Shelley, who also produced their debut; today, the stylistic association remains difficult to dispute.

For two examples, Blonde Redhead’s “Sciuri Sciura” and “Astro Boy” wield guitar shading undeniably descended from the elder NY combo plus vocals by Makino that manage to suggest Kim Gordon without actually aping her inflection, while “Swing Pool” utilizes the by then well-ensconced SY trick of temporarily coming apart into abstract ruckus and then rebuilding into recognizable form.

They were far from uninspired clones however, “I Don’t Want U” registering the influence of Krautrock and No Wave (their name is swiped from a song on DNA’s 1981 EP) among a few tightly maneuvered structural detours that underscore both the group’s instrumental adroitness and their eventual cinematic sensibility. The latter quality is deepened by the jazzy yé-yé-ish pop of finale “Girl Boy”; interestingly, this set’s title derives from a 1966 film by Jean-Luc Godard starring French pop vocalist of the era Chantal Goya.

Makino and Amedeo often alternate vocals within a single tune, most prominently on “Mama Cita,” a prime slice of mid-’90s indie rock ending with shouts and screams. Furthermore, Masculin Féminin’s first disc of collected material, which begins with their debut ’93 single “Amescream” b/w “Big Song” (for the Oxo label) reinforces just how tapped into the moment Blonde Redhead were.

If Sonic Youth-ness abounds, the vocal teamwork and hard-edged guitars of “Vague” elude the pigeonhole as the raw lo-fi of “This Is the Number of Times I Said I Will but I Didn’t” lands betwixt early Breeders and Cibo Matto. The corralled loose-ends also feature a pair of instrumentals (one a wordless “Swing Pool”) bookending the Serge Gainsbourg-Jane Birkin-referencing “Slogan Attempt” and a culminating shoegaze-dream pop 4-track demo “Woody”; when listened to as compiled it sharply emphasizes the cohesiveness and increased power of La Mia Vita Violenta.

That the follow-up came out in the same year as the debut only deepens the impressiveness of their achievement, particularly as the resemblance to SY adjusted into a broadening and increasingly confident sound. Right out of the gate, “(I Am Taking Out My Eurotrash) I Still Get Rocks Off” flaunts heightened instrumental skill in service to an energetic slab of arty pop-rock, holding all the traits of a classic single (that wasn’t) amid a delightful layer of individualism promoted in no small part through Makino’s singing, which here exhibits equal parts sophistication, urgency, and high-pitched eclecticism.

“Violent Life” is modest in comparison, though it nicely alternates brittle riffing and flowing melodic rock. The rhythmically potent “UFO” dabbles in psychedelia, a mode that’s deepened in the sitar-infused drift of “Harmony,” a song returning later in this collection through truncated 7-inch version. Between them, the throb-echo rasp-ranting of “I Am There While You Choke On Me” gets capped with beatnik-ish hand drums and a dash of monk-like chanting.

It’s through a three song stretch on La Mia Vita Violenta’s second side that Blonde Redhead persist in successfully adapting the Sonic Youth-template to their own ends, and by the arrival of “10 Feet High,” traces of an oft-cited Fugazi influence become apparent as well. In a manner familiar from Blonde Redhead, the record ends with the breathy Euro-pop fragment “Jewel.”

It’s a satisfying finish to these pair of long-players, but Masculin Féminin’s fourth LP offers a worthy postscript; the aforementioned take of “Harmony” backs up the exceptional “Flying Douglas” on a 45 issued by Rough Trade, and the off kilter singsongy highlight “Valentine” serves as the B-side to a different reading of “10 Feet High.”

Together with three more tracks (two of them previously unissued), there is also a portion of a live performance on KCRW, specifically a solid version of “…I Still Get Rocks Off” leading into “Pier Paolo,” their very sweet tribute to the great Italian film director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. It illuminates that Blonde Redhead’s scope of interest has always exceeded indie rock norms and easily justifies Masculin Féminin’s inclusion in Numero Group’s 200 Line.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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