If a band lasts long enough, it will eventually incorporate classical instruments into its music. Metal groups call in the orchestra to lend even more excess to their bombast. Pop songwriters use classical touches to value-add prestige to their sometimes lightweight craft. Many a punk rocker has gone compositional in order to signal a newfound growth, either real or imagined.
On Friday night, Blonde Redhead will play its 2004 album, Misery Is a Butterfly, in its entirety, backed by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. The band has been reaching for grand compositional and conceptual designs since it started recording in 1993; thus the show looks to be more an elaboration and reconstruction of a peak moment in its evolution than a nostalgia-fueled exercise in lily gilding.
Lead singer and guitarist Kazu Makino was born in Osaka, twin brothers Amedeo (guitar, vocals) and Simone Pace (drums) in Milan. Arriving stateside later in life, their musical ambition and refined songwriting set them apart from their American peers. On early records like 1995's La Mia Vita Violenta and 1997's Fake Can Be Just As Good, the sound could be messy and damaged around the edges, but it was clear that Blonde Redhead was straining for something far different from what their American post-punk peers were after. "Futurism vs. Passéism Part 2," from 1998's In an Expression of the Inexpressible, embodies this complexity, functioning both as a driving rock song and an experimental hybrid that takes nineties American punk and turns it into an art project. It features stop-and-start arrangements, alternate tunings, and Fugazi's Guy Picciotto blitzing through a French recitation on Italian modernism.
Rechanneling English through Italian and Japanese syntax, early Makino and Pace vocals encrypted the band's sound. It often felt as if they were playing out inscrutable private intrigues among themselves while listeners were left somewhere on the brink of comprehension.
Misery Is a Butterfly, released in 2004, was the first album the band made with a broader listening public in mind. Polished head music, it overlays drum machine tracks and processed loops with string hits and swells, with vocals that are clearer and more cleanly produced than on previous works. Though not exactly confessional, the songs communicate immediately recognizable experiences. In 2002, Makino was nearly trampled to death by a horse. She required major facial reconstructive surgery and months of convalescence. Songs like "Elephant Woman" and "Equus" deal with the aftermath of the accident, while many of Amedeo's contributions focus on his own role as a secondary survivor of Makino's brush with death.
But Misery Is a Butterfly doesn't seek to immerse the listener in the trauma of its content; rather, its songs attempt to distill the essence of specific emotional states and present them for analysis. It's as much a record about feeling as it is an expression of feelings. The music tries to reproduce the phenomenal textures specific to particular emotional states. The swirling "Anticipation" and "Magic Mountain" explore the vertigo of unfulfilled desire. "Falling Man" and "Messenger" untangle the existential chaos of feeling thrown into the world, while the title track tackles the amorous, braked time of melancholia. For the first time, the band was working from the inside out, attempting to communicate thoughts and emotions beyond merely oblique, cryptic gestures. The result is a cohesive conceptual presentation in which musical and lyrical motifs repeat to present a total vision of how extreme emotional states like love, hate, and trauma sound and feel.
As a result, orchestral arrangements seem a fitting tool with which to reimagine the romantic obsessions of the original Misery Is a Butterfly. When the band played the record live at the Ottobar in Baltimore just after its release, the sound was stripped down, the sonics more in line with the band's previous material than its most recent recording. In the studio, these longtime admirers of Serge Gainsbourg's arranger, Jean Claude-Vannier, had been able to capture his epic, lush post-classical vibe, but they seemed unsure of how to bring it to the stage.
The American Contemporary Music Ensemble's arrangements will fill in the record's sketched psychodramas, uncovering latent intensity and emotional heights. In the setting of Reynolds Industries Theater, this performance of Misery Is a Butterfly promises to be a grander affair than prior ones, or even the original recording—an occasion for the band to let its ambition manifest completely.
Blonde Redhead's classical turn makes sense in a performing arts context such as Duke Performances. Since "art-damaged" post-punk music has moved from the center of alt-music culture (now finally sharing space with worthy dance, electronic, folk, and "world" musics), it feels natural for its practitioners to jump into more controlled, curated spaces. No longer in the wheelhouse of youth culture, the tradition has had to swerve in a new direction in order to stay vibrant and relevant. With Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore as talking heads on every music documentary and Patti Smith now a regular on the New York Times bestseller list, reframing experimental rock as "art music" seems both the most interesting aesthetic possibility and the most economically viable one. The alternative—stultifying, nostalgia-fueled cash grabs, self-regarding avant-garde navel gazing, or dispirited deck-chair rearrangement—is simply disheartening.
In the hands of many of Blonde Redhead's contemporaries, this sort of orchestral reimagining has often come across as cynical courtship of a new middlebrow audience. More important, such projects often don't work musically: the mere addition of strings to basic rock songs simply sounds tacked on and tacky. But Misery Is a Butterfly was a romantic, conceptually thought-through work in its original state; all that was required was the technical means to bring out the full complexity of its musical and lyrical layers. Those in attendance when Blonde Redhead and American Contemporary Music Ensemble perform it can expect to hear new things, whether they know the album inside and out or not at all. What more can you ask from a band that's already given so much?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Misery Loves Company"