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The Boston Phoenix Avant Calling

Blonde Redhead are chosen

By Linda Laban

JULY 17, 2000:  For the past seven years, the NYC-based band Blonde Redhead have maintained a reasonably normal existence in the realm of indie rock, insofar as "normal" can apply to a Sonic Youth-inspired trio featuring Italian-born twin brothers on guitar and drums and a Japanese woman on guitar. They've received a degree of critical acclaim for the four CDs they've released on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's Smells Like Records label and Touch and Go; they've moved a modest number of units, and they've toured extensively, either playing small venues on their own or opening for similar-minded, avant-leaning indie bands like Fugazi and Unwound in larger clubs. Still, it's a surprise to find Blonde Redhead's name turning up on this season's summer shed circuit, on a tour has them as the opening act on the Red Hot Chili Peppers/Foo Fighters tour.

How did an art-damaged underground outfit like Blonde Redhead find itself in the company of two mainstream rock acts? The link is RHCP guitarist John Frusciante, who revealed his own fondness for the kind of fragile dissonance, fractured melodies, and abstract soundscapes on a pair of solo album he recorded while on hiatus from the Chili Peppers in the mid '90s. Frusciante happens to be friendly with Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, the producer of Blonde Redhead's new Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons (Touch and Go). And it was Frusciante who brought Blonde Redhead's name to the table when it was time to recruit an opening act for the band's summer tour.

"I think that Guy producing the record is how John got to listen to it," muses Blonde Redhead guitarist/vocalist Amedeo Pace in Italian-accented English when I reach him by phone. Gayle Fine at Q Prime, the Peppers' management company, confirms that it was Frusciante's idea: "It was absolutely a choice requested by John, and the other band members were all for it. They dig Blonde Redhead's music. And they like to tour with bands that they like and give those artists who may not be that well known the opportunity to expose their music to a broader audience."

Exposure to a broader audience comes at a good time for Blonde Redhead because, despite the cryptic title, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons finds Amedeo Pace, his brother Simone (drums and keyboards), and Kazu Makino (vocals/guitar) playing down the more challenging aspects of their style in favor of more-accessible melodies and dreamier soundscapes. "It's very different from our other records," Amedeo admits. "I'm not saying it's more musical. That depends on how you hear the music. I can hear a lot of beauty in the craziest of our songs. But this one maybe has a kind of beauty that the people will be able to get right away."

The vocals on Melody remain as quirky as ever, with Amedeo's tenuous and occasionally irksome warble sharing the spotlight with Kazu's shrill, Ono-esque delivery. Both Amedeo and Kazu have developed a warmer, less standoffish tone, and they're becoming more comfortable at the microphone. Still, Amedeo admits that singing remains a challenge. "You put yourself in a situation where you are very vulnerable in front of other people. The ideas that you have, the things that you really love, you are presenting them to someone else and maybe he has a different idea to what you have, and that's hard."

Of course, the one band that Blonde Redhead have consistently been compared to since debuting as a quartet in 1993 -- Sonic Youth -- have never been accused of possessing great singers, at least not in any traditional sense. But the move from the dissonance of alternate-tuned guitars of their first few albums to more traditional melodic structure on Melody would seem to be a conscious attempt by Blonde Redhead to leave the Sonic Youth comparisons behind them. "They are such a great band that I'd rather be compared to them than someone else," Amedeo says. "But we are so different now."

Different, perhaps. But Blonde Redhead would still make a lot more sense as the opening act on a Sonic Youth tour than they do warming up arena-size crowds for Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers. And Amedeo is well aware that Blonde Redhead are going to stick out like a sore thumb. Indeed, he says, when Frusciante called about doing the tour, "I had some questions for him because I didn't want us to be in an uncomfortable situation. I've heard a lot of bands that open up for them sometimes are booed because everyone is waiting for the Chili Peppers to go on. It could be pretty discouraging. We thought about it for two or three weeks and decided it would be a good thing to try at least. I think we are now strong enough to take what's coming to us . . . unless it's a bottle or a shoe."

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