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Album 13 of 500: Blonde Redhead – Misery is a Butterfly

April 28, 2010

BAND:  BLONDE REDHEAD
ALBUM:  MISERY IS A BUTTERFLY
LABEL: 4AD
RELEASE DATE: Mar 14th 2004

Misery Is a Butterfly is an album with depth.  Completely resistant to fatigue brought on by repeated listens.  Ornate, bordering on profligate, instrumentation.  Certainly an album conceived to be admired, but not exhibiting any signs of aloofness.  The charge might make sense in regards to some of Blonde Redhead’s other material, but not this album.  Singers Amedeo Pace and Kazu Makino are emoting aaaaaaaaall over the place.  The music might seem like genteel chamber pop, but they sing their tales of trauma and tsuris with startling emotional intensity.  Indeed, the passionate, perhaps even overzealous vocal delivery risks alienating certain listeners.  But their investment in the material, their admirable disregard for seeming histrionic is a challenge to the listener: their commitment deserves reciprocity (i.e. your full attention.)

This is an album that demands to be experienced in one sitting.  None of the songs independently amount to a satisfying pop experience (except for “Equus,” the discussion of which we’ll get around to shortly.)  Instead, you listen to the entire album and it unfurls itself before you.  The languorous pace of the songs suggests that they exist to be savored.  There’s no consideration for conventional song structure (once again, not counting “Equus”) and as such, each track follows it own logic, never contrived.  The chorus of the title track, “Misery Is a Butterfly,” comes a full three minutes into its five minute running time, yet you feel as if could not have conceivably come at any other point and sound as perfect as it does.  Indeed some of the songs, especially “Melody,” seem as if they could conceivably go on for hours without the listener wanting to skip to the next track.

The centerpiece of the album has to be the final three tracks, a stunningly conceived valediction.  “Magic Mountain,” with its breathless vocal presentation by Makino and uncharacteristically minimal instrumentation leads perfectly into “Pink Love,” the first track that breaks the pattern of a Kazu Makino-sung song alternating with an Amedeo Pace-sung song.  It’s a duet featuring the two on vocals, with its 3/4 time signature dramatically realized with relentless quarter note guitar strumming and insistent bassline.  This is the song the two singers have been waiting for to go all out.  They take turns trying to outdo each other trading verses until Makino authoritatively takes ownership of the chorus.  All of this leads to the one pop song on the album with a traditional song structure, curiously but boldly placed as the last song.  And a hell of a pop song it is.  “Equus” is energetic, catchy, and yes it’s about the play of the same name in which a guy wants to screw a horse.

If there’s one problem I can find with Misery Is a Butterfly, it’s a relatively trifling one.  I think that if a band has a false ending in a song, they should make damn sure that the song is brilliant to the degree where the possibility of the song ending where the false ending is placed is genuinely risible to the listener, in order to justify the contrivance in the first place.  If a song isn’t absolutely great, chances are the tune’s resurrection after the false ending is going to be met with disappointment from the listener.  Because, let’s face it, a lot of songs should end before they do.  And almost all songs with false endings should end where the false ending is.  The use of the false ending technique is acceptable in “Doll Is Mine,” especially since it’s conspicuously placed so early in the song.  But it’s just irritating in “Falling Man,” definitely the weakest song on the album.  I point this out more as a general criticism for the device of the false ending than I do to dissuade you from listening to Misery Is a Butterfly, which if I tried to do so would be much to my eternal discredit.

PAT AGUIAR © 2010 500 Rad Records

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