Even through the thick-framed glasses of a downtown hipster, hindsight is 20/20. Nowadays, it’s easy to see that Blonde Redhead never really was as New York as it seemed. But a decade ago, it was even easier to see the trio as something else: pretenders to the dissonant-art-rock throne of Kim and Thurston. The group debuted on Sonic Youther Steve Shelley’s label, used a song on its second LP to name-check his band, and generally made the kind of noisy, obtuse music that has been the lifeblood of the boroughs since, if not Confusion Is Sex, then The Velvet Underground & Nico. Over time, though, Blonde Redhead has wandered from its old sonic-chaos origins, sanding off the rough edges and warming up the chilly avant-garde attitude. Nowhere is the change more evident than on the new Misery Is a Butterfly, a work that is lushly produced and addictively melodic without betraying the band’s fundamentally off-kilter identity. Singer-guitarist Kazu Makino is a native of Kyoto, and brothers Amedeo (guitar, vocals) and Simone Pace (drums) hail from Milan, so all those foreign-language lyrics and head-scratcher titles weren’t just for art’s sake. Accordingly, Misery is a weird joy from its opening strains. “Elephant Woman,” the album’s first single, is a cascade of dramatic strings, shimmering clavinet, and subtle but urgent bongos. Makino pierces through the music at a startlingly high pitch with a wailing that straddles exultation (“Angel, I can see myself in your eyes”) and agony (“My head hurts much too much”). Her happy-sad croon sounds like the love song of an anguished ER patient, and the result is both jarring and gorgeous. Indeed, it’s vocal tension of several varieties that defines Misery, and when Makino isn’t sing-pleading, Amedeo is pitching in with a nasal forlornness of his own. Though potentially grating in large doses, on songs such as the drunken-waltzy “Doll Is Mine” and the strum-driven “Maddening Cloud,” his voice plays effectively off the consistently sparkling musical settings. Whether or not Blonde Redhead intended to separate itself from the scene it’s long been lumped into, the band has done so with wild success. At this rate, it shouldn’t be long before Makino & Co. have their own throne to defend. —Michael Crowley
Blonde Redhead performs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 22, and at 9:30 p.m. Friday, April 23, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.