Eight of the nine songs on D.C. foursome Make-Up’s Save Yourself petition a “baby.” “Yeah child baby they never understand why I’m your main man” (“White Belts”). “I got my baby back from the shop little baby” (“Call Me Mommy”). “Baby if you’ve got any feelings hold me in your child-bearing hips” (“[Make Me a] Feelin’ Man”). And in their irreverent “Hey Joe,” it’s like every third word. This broken-record litany may appear to fall simply within the realm of retro-saucy aesthetics, but the way Make-Up sing it out is all about inclusivity, i.e., recruiting ranks. As singer Ian Svenonius baldly admits in “C’mon, Let’s Spawn”: “I wanna be a big fish in a small pond, sock it to me baby.” And he is one: An oft quoted former Sassiest Boy in America (who lied about his age to win the contest), he regularly sells out shows, commanding a space to blab and strut in the lilliputian pond of independent music.
New York-based trio Blonde Redhead possess a similar golden-sheen standing. Although their emotional, ethereal songs sound nothing like the repetitive garage rock of Make-Up, they too have put out records consistently since the mid ’90s, and provoke a certain knee-jerk admiration from the college crowd. But while you’ll see all the same pasty, trying-to-look-bored, trashing-these-bands-at-home-but-always-coming-to-their-shows kids at both Make-Up and Blonde Redhead venues, the latter coalition sorely lacks the former’s levity—a quality that renders Make-Up annoying and disarming at once. Addressing their audience as “baby” is silly, yet it has an aim: It’s antielitist, a proactive response to mortified-to-move-a-limb indie pratitude. “We pay them,” snaggletoothed Svenonius chaffed when Olympia singer and rock critic Lois Maffeo asked how Make-Up get an audience to dance. “You have to convince the punks they have nothing to lose.” The effect is less Barry White horndogism—or teenage cutieism, à la Britney Spears—and more a real c’mon!-style gesture to get affected dorks to shed their stilted cool.
Make-Up’s sixth album, Save Yourself, is cheerfully psychedelic, even swankily so—not in a black-light kind of way, but like garage mood-music laced with well-timed Baptist wailing. For the as yet unconvinced, it illustrates through its obsession with sermon-style call-outs that it’s incorrect to lump Make-Up, as often happens, in with bands like Jon Spencer’s and the Delta 72, who rely more on blues badassness than a gospel methodology. Standout tracks include the catchy “The Bells” (with Fugazi’s Brendan Canty, who produced the album, playing a pulsating vibrachime that makes you want to masturbate in church) and an almost eight-minute “Hey Joe,” highlighted by Joe’s midsong cell-phone dialogue with his ladyfriend (“Baby I wanna come back home from Mexico. Wanna turn the lights down low. Turn up your stereo. Baby walk those stairs, yeah, going up into your room”). Not since their 1997 live album, Afterdark, have Make-Up been so consistently compelling.
Live, Svenonius’s ad-libbing summons the passionate spontaneity of the ready-to-rip ’60s New Left. Not to mention Foucault: “Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.” Lyrics and liner notes casually make observations about conspiracy theory and shit like that (this has always been part of the shtick, dating back to former Make-Up incarnations Nation of Ulysses and Cupid Car Club); Afterdark had de rigueur FBI and secret files and fatelines. But it also had several manifesto-esque deliveries seemingly detailing, with self-amused acuity, what can be powerful about noncorporate rock. Sounds mawkish? Actually, it’s not. In “We Can’t Be Contained,” amid cat-in-labor ululations, Ian’s hot to “build sonic architecture” because “it’s the only poor people’s defense, it’s the only way poor people can live in a world which even approximates the thing that they want.” In another track, he disclaims, after fighting the capitalist foe, “Can you dig that? I know that sentiment’s just a little bit passé.” Maybe so, but in this context it’s also fun.
On the other hand, Blonde Redhead—who have toured with Make-Up, and whose new record is coproduced by another member of Fugazi, Guy Piccioto—have always struck a decidedly ungoofy note. Their aesthetic feels rarefied, composed, careful, insular—high modernist, almost. Naming their band after a song by NYC’s no-wave DNA, Japanese-born Kazu Makino and Italian twin brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace (who both studied jazz at the Berklee College of Music) write compositions with an uncorny power of effect, stemming from a gorgeous interplay between assonance and dissonance.
Steve Shelley put out some of their earliest work on his Smells Like Records label, and Blonde Redhead have often been compared to Sonic Youth. But their latest release, the unfortunately titled Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, really does emphatically embrace melody. There’s even an unprecedented (and apparently autobiographical) pure pop effort called “This Is Not”: “Once she loved a boy. But he did not love her . . . Disillusioned, she tried to forget . . . And then, by chance, she met you and your brother.” Blonde Redhead’s earlier records each had two or three songs that blew me away with crashing guitars and perfectly timed high-pitched screams, perfect for walking down the street feeling intense unto yourself, but those albums also contained a lot of tuneless arrangements, best suited as background for drunken housecleaning. Damaged Lemons, though, moves in a way the others don’t—to the point that Kazu and her bandmates actually dance around in their own apartment to it, she told me.
Minimal yet lush, pared down without being severe, “Hated Because of Great Quantities” features Kazu—in a more mellifluent voice than ever—sonorously sing-speaking. And as a whole, Lemons has more White Album (even a bunch of cute “la la la” ‘s!) than it does Daydream Nation. BR cite ’60s soundtracks as an influence; they’ve covered Serge Gainsbourg in French and in general have a froggish new-wave cinematic aesthetic easily apparent on their stylish album covers as well as in their retro-futuristic sound. In October, they’ve got an all-romance-language EP coming out—”a tribute to our European roots,” believe it or not, with one song earnestly “dedicated to all the Italian people.” If Make-Up is a band with a “mission,” Blonde Redhead is a band with a “concept.”
Blonde Redhead may take themselves a bit seriously (Kazu impatiently implored me to stop asking “boring” questions unrelated to the new album—Mariah Carey, anyone?), but they have the talent to make it forgivable: Part prog rock, part punk rock, and part sentimental soundtrack, Lemons is bewitchingly hard to dislike. And their aim is true. “[Our audience] knows how bad the mainstream stuff is; they know the other options,” Kazu professes. “People have more understanding of what it means to be there. In some ways, people can be really pure.” Whatever that means; while their guitars gently weep, right? Or, as Ian sings in his antipropaganda anthem, “Don’t mind the mind.”