As the band that convinced Nirvana to sign to DGC Records, Sonic Youth were one of the immediate beneficiaries of Nevermind’s game-changing success. They may not have received an official finder’s fee, but the spillover spoils were undeniable: heavier MTV rotation, six-figure record sales, and enough Letterman appearances to usurp Paul Shaffer as the house band. But, at the same time, Sonic Youth’s talent-scout acumen wasn’t just a boon to the DGC A&R department. In 1992, drummer Steve Shelley launched his own imprint out of his Hoboken home to nurture the next sedimentary layer of the underground. With tongue planted somewhat in cheek, he gave his label a name—Smells Like Records—that honored the very phenomenon that allowed him to wield his kingmaking powers.
But if the Smells Like name was a bit of a joke, then Blonde Redhead seemed to be the punchline, given that their music exuded a pungent whiff of Shelley’s main gig. If Sonic Youth had come to view Nirvana as their baby band, Blonde Redhead were the NYC-bound foreign-exchange students—two Japanese women and a pair of Italian twins—who had their own peculiar interpretation of the host culture. Revisiting the two albums Blonde Redhead released on Smells Like, it’s easy to hear why Shelley was drawn to the band—and the reasons go beyond imitation-as-flattery. Where Nirvana showed how Sonic Youth’s sturm-and-clang could be streamlined for mainstream rock audiences, Blonde Redhead made it seem oblique and exotic once again, rendering post-no-wave squall with a European art-house sophistication.
Masculin Féminin compiles Blonde Redhead’s Smells Like catalogue—1994’s self-titled debut and 1995’s La Mia Vita Violenta—along with associated singles, outtakes, and radio sessions. And the box set arrives via Numero Group, a reissue label best known for its archival digs through regional ’70s soul scenes from Ohio to Belize. But these days, the ’90s New York indie rock era feels equally remote. The Big Apple sounds of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s have been thoroughly canonized in books, documentaries, fictional biopics, and ill-fated TV shows. But while contemporary music—from indie rock to R&B—is now awash in ’90s nostalgia, the trend has mostly passed over the vibrant activity happening in New York at the time.
Through the 1980s, indie rock was built on American infrastructure: interstates and college towns and community-radio stations and Kinko’s. But by the mid-’90s, it had become something more cosmopolitan, and New York, naturally, served as the primary melting pot. The Beastie Boys were its most eager ambassadors, with a multi-cultural messthetic that filtered down to peers like Luscious Jackson, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Soul Coughing, and Cibo Matto, while their *Grand Royal *magazine packed a whole internet’s worth of global esoterica into its handsomely bound pages. At the same time, Matador Records were less interested in looking for the next Pavement than scooping up Japanese pastiche-pop acts like Pizzicato Five and Cornelius.
Blonde Redhead weren’t as outwardly irreverent as the aforementioned artists—after all, they took their name from a song by no-wave iconoclasts DNA. And their standard four-piece rock-band lineup seemed traditional compared to the prevailing genre-hopping cut-and-paste style. But even on their 1995 debut, they were severing the abrasive sound of indie rock from its hardcore roots and refashioning it into something more impressionistic and enigmatic.
In discussing the band’s early years with the* Big Takeover* in 2011, singer Kazu Makino said, “I never thought we were violent or angry or post punk.” But you might get a different impression from their debut’s caterwauling opener “I Don’t Want U,” a he-scream/she-scream anti-love song scrawled with a bloody razor blade. While the deceptively calm mise-en-scène bears evidence of brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace’s jazz-schooled backgrounds, it’s soon vandalized by the former’s strangulated verse vocals and a frenzied climax where Makino unleashes a voice like a squawking saxophone.
The rest of *Blonde Redhead *is likewise built from serrated shards and sudden expulsions, with Kazu and Amadeao prodding and jousting one another in an attempt to figure out how their voices can interlock. There are touches of the melodic finesse that would flourish on later releases, but on songs like “Mama Cita” and “Astro Boy,” the staccato, circular singing often mirrors the needling guitar lines. Tellingly, the album’s most transfixing song is its most atypical, both in the context of this record and everything Blonde Redhead did after. On the eerily propulsive “Sciuri Sciura,” Kazu’s funhouse-mirrored voice refracts atop a hypnotic bass groove from long departed bassist Maki Takahashi (who only stuck around for this one album).
Given the lushness of their post-millennium output, the stern-faced severity of* Blonde Redhead* seems even more jarring today than it did in ’95. But the singles and outtakes compiled here hint at a more gentle, playful side: “Big Song” bears the shoegazing glide of late-’80s My Bloody Valentine; “Vague” is a stab at hooky, Pixies-esque fuzz-pop. And it’s funny how much Blonde Redhead’s most radical attempts to draw outside the lines mirror Sonic Youth’s efforts at the same. In the drum-machined scuzz-hop experiments “This Is the Number of Times I Said I Will But Didn’t” and “Woody,” Blonde Redhead essentially adopt their own Ciccone Youth alter ego, right down to the latter track’s “Lucky Star” references. But while 29-second drum-loop snippet “Slogan Attempt” initially seems like a superfluous throwaway, its brief quote of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s “La Décadanse” drops the tiniest bread-crumb clue pointing to the band’s future.
*La Mia Vita Violenta *yielded the first real evidence of Blonde Redhead’s art-pop aspirations—the guitars still buzz and drone, but the hooks are sharper, the bee-swarm onslaught more focussed. The difference is immediately apparent on the album’s exhilarating opener “(I Am Taking Out My Eurotrash) I Still Get My Rocks Off,” where Kazu’s restless verses and Amadeao’s melodic counter-vocal provide a perfect balance of tension and release. On the whole, the two singers sound more complementary than combative, with the soothing influence of ’60s Franco-pop loosening up the discordant tangle of songs like “Bean” and non-album A-side “Flying Douglas.” And with “Violent Life,” Amadeao tapped into the perpetually yearning singing style that would become his signature.
The seams are still showing here: the cool maraca rhythm of “U.F.O.” abruptly gives way to a thundering drum coda that you wish the band had explored further. And the record’s transitory nature sees distorto-pop blurts like “I Am There While You Choke on Me” and “10 Feet High” collide with the clock-melting sitar odyssey “Harmony” (also presented here in its shorter, more unsettled seven-inch version) and the creepily whispered lullaby “Jewel.” The outtakes here venture even further afield, with tentative toe-dips into sad-eyed electro-pop (“Not Too Late”) and lonesome-cowboy blues (“Country Song”).
But that unorthodox approach is what liberates this music from the realm of ’90s time capsules. Taken as a whole, Masculin Féminin is a scrapbook made of records that already felt like scrapbooks, but collectively they form a portrait of a band more multi-dimensional than their Sonic Youth Jr. rep suggested. Listening now, the differences between the two bands seem as pronounced as the similarities. Compared to Sonic Youth’s tightly coiled art-punk epics, early Blonde Redhead were far more scrappy and impulsive, and they were more willing to exploit the frisson between their male and female leads (compared to Thurston and Kim’s often segregated vocal turns). And when you consider the kind of music Sonic Youth were making at the time and thereafter, it’s not a stretch to suggest the influence was mutual.
Blonde Redhead recorded La Mia Vita Violenta around the same time Sonic Youth were finishing up Washing Machine, and the records share a disquieting nocturnal atmosphere infused with ghostly echoes of pre-psychedelic pop. In hindsight, both albums were also situated at the same crossroads: La Mia Vita Violenta saw Blonde Redhead starting to shed their scabrous skin en route to a more expansive sound, while Washing Machine served as Sonic Youth’s gateway from their Lollapalooza-headliner halcyon days into their more experimental SYR EPs phase. And where Sonic Youth once fixated on American icons from Madonna to Manson, from this point on, they started giving songs titles like “Contre le Sexisme” and “Slaapkamers Met Slagroom,” while packaging records to look like European library music. It’s hard to say if Blonde Redhead were responsible for stoking the Youth’s internationalist affectations. But the great strides they made on La Mia Vita Violenta at least instilled Blonde Redhead with enough confidence to title their next record Fake Can Be Just As Good.