If you’re looking for some relatively not-lame background music for your next hipster yoga circle, Blonde Redhead’s Penny Sparkle will fit the bill just peachily.

Blonde Redhead

Penny Sparkle
4AD

But that’s a damn shame, considering the band’s status as one of the more consistently interesting outfits on the indie shiver-pop circuit.

With past albums, Blonde Redhead has always found innovative ways to bridge the gap between spidery art house tension and an unadulterated pop sensibility, crafting arrangements that hover like spectral cobras. At its best, the band is a master at hitting eerie pockets between lusty warmth and ghostly intrigue, waiting to strike while subduing with deceptively bubble-gummy melodies.

Penny Sparkle, however, finds the group lounging around in a frustratingly mild middle region, doling out innocuous melodies that are neither threatening nor hummable. While the tracks are all harmonically sound and pleasant enough to listen to, Sparkle often winds up sounding like incredibly high-end spa music, or a candidate for the infamous “chilltronica” genre.

“Will There Be Stars,” for instance, is like a cardboard cut-out of the band’s signature creepiness, with Amedeo Pace’s watery vocals washing over cheap-sounding drum pad bloops and sci-fi synths that sound like they’re on the same settings as the ones used in the “X-Files” theme song.

Elsewhere, the music is too docile to even sound purposefully tacky. “Penny Sparkle” and “Love or Prison” are essentially interchangeable, with Kazu Makino’s wispy voice floating competently around meditation-music synth drones without ever really sticking.

While it’s clear that the band was going for a more subdued vibe with Sparkle, the end result is an album that’s peaceful enough to listen to in full but too harmless to demand repeat visits. It’s the type of record that works on a bell curve: floating by on first listen, growing on you steadily as you unravel its yin-yang melodies, and then shriveling up once you realize you’d rather be listening to something more exciting.

“Here Sometimes” and “Not Getting There” at least sport legitimate hooks, the former ratcheting up a slow-burn chord progression over an assembly-line drum machine and the latter pitting angsty, New Wave-y guitars against hot-and-cold synth lines for some refreshingly edgy synth pop. But both tracks feel strangely half-assed and synthetic like the rest of the album, begging for a burst of energy and consequence.

Not surprisingly, the one emotionally resonant track, “My Plants Are Dead,” is also the haziest, with swampy guitar murmurs hanging over a crisp trip-hop beat like a bleary-eyed mist. The song actually feels complete, with its crunchy foundation merging seamlessly with the cloudy instrumentals and Makino’s bittersweet vocals, emphasizing the unnaturally stagnant dead space on the rest of the album. While the entirety of Sparkle is intricately produced and fussed over, it still manages to come off as canned and tinny, leaving listeners to wonder if Redhead’s stellar 23 would have retained the same mystique without all the drenchy reverb.

For purists who felt that 23’s lush studio sheen was overly airbrushed and indulgent compared to the leaner menace of the band’s previous work (see: Misery is a Butterfly, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons), Sparkle should offer a mildly diverting alternative. But for anyone else, Redhead’s latest is nothing more than a well-oiled snoozefest.

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