In what could be surely counted as one of the most significant reissues of this year, the Numero Group is offering up a Blonde Redhead box set of rare, early material. The collection, called Masculin Feminin, drops this Friday. It contains the band's first 2 albums (Blonde Redhead and La Mia Vita Violenta, both from 1995), as well as a whole bunch of singles and demos and stuff. That this is essential is without question.
On the earliest tracks, the band is finding its way around the legacies of both No New York and Sonic Youth, fitting since Steve Shelley put out these early long-players on his label. As Kazu Makino wails, brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace thrash out a righteous noise behind her, equal parts Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and Elephants Memory. On stuff like "Astro Boy", it's hard not to hear a bunch of kids who'd played "Star Power" a whole lotta times. Still, the music is fresh and peppered with moments that elevate this to something special on its own terms. "Mama Cita" works up a furious jazzy fury that seems to prefigure quite a few of the textures one would hear on later Blonde Redhead records. But, yeah, there's far more shrieking here than on those more recent releases and Kazu Makino's vocal work on these earliest cuts adds a truly experimental edge to the recordings that makes them overall a little riskier than a lot of what Sonic Youth was doing in the same era. On the superb "Swing Pool", for instance, the band seem to have finally hit on that push-pull vibe that they'd perfect later. Portions of the cut are wildly catchy even if other bits mark this as clearly noise rock, not shoegaze.
The band's first single is here and while A-side "Amescream" doesn't inspire as it must have in 1993, B-side "Big Song" rocks with the sort of Neu-esque abandon one can hear on the very best Th' Faith Healers sides. The number features bassist Tada Hirano whose work anchors the swirl of this one. The "Vague" single puts the band back in noise rock territory with flip "Jet Star" offering up something truly abrasive and beautiful, complete with lyrics by Arto Lindsay.
The second half of Masculin Feminin kicks off with the exhilarating "(I Am Taking Out My Eurotrash) I Still Get Rocks Off" which showcases each member of this band to great effect. Seemingly harnessed now, Kazu Makino's vocals here seem to be what the song is centered around and not an additional element as it seemed on earlier tracks. The drums and guitars work up a stomp that's nearly Bad Seeds worthy at times but the sound here is now, firmly, the band's own. On other La Mia Vita Violenta cuts like "Harmony" and "Down Under", the trio tone down the glorious noise of the early releases for something more complex as traces of post-punk and free jazz brush up against each other throughout the cuts from the second LP proper. As far as albums go, this second release is a bit more expansive than the first and one can hear here, on tracks like "10 Feet High", the band trying to redefine, and own, the sort of music that inspired them in the first place.
This half of Masculin Feminin is rounded out with single cuts like the lovely and eerie "Jewel", and the trippy "Valentine" which nearly dissolves into a fit of Kazu Makino's laughter. "Flying Douglas" seems altogether catchier than anything on the band's first 2 records even as it flirts a bit with a shoegaze-y sense of feedback in spots. Elsewhere, there's a pair of radio sessions that highlight the adeptness of Blonde Redhead at pulling this all off live, while demo "It Was All So Sudden" offers a hint at the sort of direction this band's material would follow much later on the superb Misery is a Butterfly (2004), an album produced by D.C. legend Guy Picciotto (Rites of Spring, Fugazi).
Blonde Redhead have never compromised. If I stressed the fact that they were operating under the shadow of Sonic Youth early on, so be it; what indie musician wasn't in this country in 1995? That the band managed to expand upon that template so well and so distinctively is what makes the recordings on Masculin Feminin so important. Believe me, there were loads of bands cribbing the noise from the Youth without half a bit of sense about anything else. Blonde Redhead got it. They got it, man. And they ran with the formula and kicked at the edges until they had their own sound. What Masculin Feminin does so well is illustrate how damn quickly this group arrived at something that was uniquely their own. Within the space of just 2 albums, a clutch of singles, and some demo recordings, the art of Blonde Redhead takes shape for a listener all over again. That so much of this is so vital and fiery speaks to how expertly this NYC crew internalized the process of making music that sometimes got overshadowed by the scene-making of other acolytes of the whole No New York thang. There's 37 cuts here and not one is unnecessary. The first 10 years' of stuff from Blonde Redhead is some of the most essential post-punk music this country has offered up. That so much of that vitality can be heard here, on a collection that chronicles just the band's first few formative years, tells you that you need to get this set. Revelatory and inspiring, this is brave work that reminds a listener why Blonde Redhead deserve so much more attention than they sometimes get.