Girl on Film

Misery is having more than one band member piled upon your lap: Blonde Redhead
Josh Rothstein

Taken as a whole, Blonde Redhead's Misery Is a Butterfly feels like a serial montage, a repetition of a subtle yet familiar movie convention: the art-film moment when a song surges in the soundtrack to triumphantly deliver the final scene to the closing credits. It's a directorial device that sometimes makes an otherwise disorienting movie seem kind of profound, at least until the lights come up, and it can even change the way you hear a particular piece of music. (To this day, I can't hear the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" without picturing the imploding skyline at the end of Fight Club. It's the kind of minor manipulation I don't mind giving myself over to.) Misery is a Butterfly collects those sweeping moments of movie theater synesthesia when the song becomes the film and the film becomes the song. But this is a realm beyond the rock-album-as-soundtrack trope: Rather than music for imaginary films, or music that makes the listener's life cinematic, Blonde Redhead's songs come off as little films unto themselves.

The New York trio (twin brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace and singer Kazu Makino) has, over the course of six albums, morphed from being a marginal post-rock group with a taste for sonic mise-en-scène to an art-rock band that writes songs like French new wave films in miniature. Maybe it's Makino's wispy, slightly flat vocals that conjure the muted eroticism of color 8mm and scratchy celluloid jumping across a screen; or the wintry keyboards and strings which sound like a Serge Gainsbourg creation from a smoke-filled theater where you were once almost conceived. Unlike romantic rock bands that seem lens-smeared with Vaseline, Blonde Redhead are just terminally out of focus, making you squint with your ears.

As "cinematic rock," they're much more Godard than Spielberg, so while it can be difficult to describe Blonde Redhead's songs per se, it's easy to read meanings into them, as at times they're aggressively obtuse. The song "Falling Man," then, becomes a kind of counterpart to "Tumbling Woman," Eric Fischl's 9/11 memorial sculpture. The former isn't a tumbling body's movement fixed in bronze, an infinite moment before death, but a disoriented life force extricating itself from fallen flesh, the infinite present outside time: "I am what I am and what I am is who I am/I know what I know and all I know is that I fell.../I know a ghost can walk through the wall/But I am just a man still learning how to fall." The drums tumble and throb in the determined confusion psychics often talk about, the way the dead always seem drunk when they walk through walls to tell us things.

What makes this album a fertile screen on which to project one's own images is the adept way Makino subverts her own metaphors and then paints with them as other lyricists would use imagery or adjectives. In the sinister, Portishead-ish "Melody," we're not sure if she's talking about a human being named Melody or the pensive melody that's sketching in the phantasmal narrative like a crumbling pastel crayon, or maybe something that lies between the two: "Why did you kill them, poor old man?/ Melody.../She said, 'He was never kind to me'/Tell me how she was dressed that day/My melody." Makino's melody is the only constancy as the song zooms from scene to disconnected scene like an avant-garde film, dissolute clavinet leaving entire characters marooned in verses, and you wonder afterward how much of the perceived story is just the haze of false memory. The ambivalence is carried through her weird singing voice, androgynous in the lower registers and positively alien in the upper ones, and the way she prefers most of the time to hover on the wavering border in between.

In a broader sense, what's great about Misery Is a Butterfly is what's great about avant-garde filmmaking as well as avant-garde rock. Each genre is the unlikely result of the Industrial Age and consumerism--the fact that you can buy mass-produced gear (guitars and amps, movie cameras) cheaply and widely, and that you can use the strange possibilities suggested to you by these technologies, rather than the conventions dictated to you by history, as your point of departure. Or that you can use one technology as though it's another. This is why rock has always been about individual expression rather than repertoire (as in classical music), and why underground film is less about making "windows on walls" (as in painting) than tweaking the odd connect/disconnect you feel when two dimensions bloom into three and then four. Blonde Redhead aim their guitars like cameras and the experimental becomes warmly human. Misery is the curtains parting in front of a giant silver window we're used to seeing in a darkened Cineplex, and butterflies in the shadowy places we've brought there.

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